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Tom Petty doc dives deep into ‘Wildflowers’ sessions

Documentary makes its premiere at SXSW

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is an intimate view of a musical icon that was taken from us way too soon in October 2017. The documentary is drawn from newly discovered 16mm film from the Tom Petty Archive that was shot between 1993 and 1995 by Petty’s longtime filmographer Martyn Atkins during the Wildflowers album sessions and tour that followed. Much of the material has never been seen before. Archival interviews and concert footage are interspersed with newly recorded clips featuring daughter Adria Petty, and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, among others. The doc made its premiere as a Centerpiece Film during the SXSW Online Film Festival on Wednesday (March 17th).

While Full Moon Fever is Petty’s debut solo effort, Petty felt more free working on Wildflowers, his second solo album. He’d been with The Heartbreakers and MCA Records for 20 years before recording his magnum opus with Warner Bros. Branching off allowed him to work with Rubin for the first time, creating a more personal and emotional project than ever before. He says Rubin helped him become more comfortable with his craft.

“This time in my life, I feel much more comfortable being myself. It’s soul music. I think that’s what I am. I think I’m a soul singer because you have to connect with your soul in a way,” Petty shares. “That’s what going on with me artistically. I feel very prolific right now. I feel more like me.”

Rubin took a more organic approach to recording than Petty’s previous producer Jeff Lynne. The band performed live in studio with few overdubs while Lynne preferred the typical tracking and layering method. No loops or click tracks (an audio cue to keep the musicians in time) were used during the Wildflowers sessions.

Petty credits the overall feeling of Wildflowers to drummer Steve Ferrone, who was hired after auditioning multiple drummers, including studio legend Kenny Aronoff. Despite using Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, Petty refused to use Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair in fear of the project morphing into another Heartbreakers album. Petty was adamant that he create a solo record, and that’s exactly what he did with help from his new band.

Wildflowers was originally released in 1994 and was certified 3x platinum nine months after its release. It was Petty’s fastest selling album, but wasn’t complete in his eyes. Petty had always envisioned Wildflowers as a double album, but Warner Bros. rebuffed, fearing the album would be too expensive to sell at the time (A double CD would have likely ran about $25 in 1994, something that now costs around $12). Petty was forced to whittle the 25 songs down to 15, a process that took several months. Among the cut tracks at the time was “Hung Up And Overdue,” a six minute overture featuring The Beatles’ Ringo Starr on the drums and The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson on guitar.

Last year, the full project finally came to life as the long-awaited Wildflowers reissue and comprehensive collection known as All The Rest was released by Warner Records. Petty first mentioned revisiting the set in 2015 with the release of “Somewhere Under Heaven” while Campbell discussed it shortly after Petty’s death. All The Rest was curated by Petty’s daughters, Adria and Annakim Petty and his wife Dana Petty, alongside Campbell and Tench. It was produced by Petty’s longtime engineer and co-producer Ryan Ulyate. The record, released in multiple configurations in October 2020, sold out within a week as fans rushed to hear the songs that were left off the original album.

“There’s something about the artist work that has a little bit of a diary-like aspect,” Rubin shares. “The work reflects a time in someone’s life that wasn’t always conscience where it was coming from. He told me Wildflowers scares him because he’s not really sure why it’s as good as it is so it has this like haunted feeling for him. He very much wanted to re-release it. He thought it was really important because the legacy of the Wildflowers album loomed large in his career, and he knew that the second half of Wildflowers was an important statement.”

In the mist of the Wildflowers sessions, Petty was contractually obligated to give MCA Records two new songs for Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker’s Greatest Hits. In an effort not to disrupt the Wildflowers vibe, Petty rented a different studio where he and his original band recorded the tracks that ultimately released them from their contract with MCA.

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is a fantastic documentary that takes a deep look inside the making of one of rock’s rootsiest and prolific records to date. The film shows Petty as a serious (and often funny) singer/songwriter overachieving to make the best record possible. With his team in place, Petty would spend months in the studio perfecting a batch of songs that took 26 years before it was heard in its entirety. It’s unfortunate Petty wasn’t able to oversee the project himself.