SXSW: ‘Somewhere You Feel Free’ Is Made for Tom Petty Completionists and That’s About It (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: B-

Every so often there comes a documentary that seems laser focused on a specific audience. Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free is one of those, and that audience is exclusively Tom Petty completionists.

Comprised mostly of found footage of Petty’s recording his 1994 album Wildflowers, Director Mary Wharton assembles the film in the most rote way possible. There’s grainy, 16mm footage intercut with photographs from the early 90s, all sewn together with lens flares and reel breaks, and some irritatingly literal animation thrown for color. It’s really the only way to present the Patron Saint of Dad Rock, whose impressive catalogue has spent decades working its way through billboard charts to classic rock radio to a staple of a grocery store’s PA system.

Structurally, Somewhere You Feel Free shares some DNA with the Wilco doc I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, centering the narrative on the long road creating an album that, in each case, was a creative departure for the respective artists. This is where the completionism comes in. Unless you’re a dedicated superfan, the process of making an album is rarely interesting enough to carry a feature-length runtime.

Although the worn-denim approach will hold the interest of casual Petty fans, particularly those with a soft spot for his would-be “solo” record (which isn’t a small number). Particularly the aspect of feeling stuck in a rut two-decades in the making, which drives the early part of the story. Wanting to break away from his band The Heartbreakers and producer Jeff Lynn, Petty ends up teaming up with producer Rick Rubin, then known primarily for his work in hip-hop. Little by little, the album comes together. There are creative differences, people part ways, and in the end, a record comes out. Rubin, along with assorted musicians who’d worked with Petty over the years fill in the gaps with interviews looking back at the time, which by all accounts, was a pretty delightful experience.

Sure, there were some contractual obligations and locking horns with the suits at the record label, along with the someone understated irony that what started as Petty’s grand solo endeavor ended up incorporating most of the Heartbreakers in some capacity. But really, Somewhere You Feel Free is absent from all the drug-addled, diva-driven drama that ends up framed as the central conflict. Like the Wildflowers album itself, it’s a breezy, in-the-background-on-Saturday-afternoon-kind of experience.

As the participants’ recollections (including Petty’s own daughters) slowly mount to crowning Wildflowers as the single greatest achievement in his vast collection of work. Which may cause some debate among the Petty completionists, which again, was who this film was tailor-made for.

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