Cinema Review: Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free [SXSW 2021] | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, February 7th, 2023  

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free

Directed by Mary Wharton

Mar 24, 2021 Web Exclusive
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This year’s centerpiece film of the online South By Southwest Film Festival is Mary Wharton’s documentary Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free. The 90-minute documentary focuses on Petty’s recording sessions for his favorite album – and one of his most acclaimed pieces of work – 1994’s Wildflowers, its release, and the tour that followed.

The film is not a biography of Petty. Rather, it narrows in on only the events in his life from 1993 to 1995. It is built around recovered 16mm footage of Petty making and performing the album, as well as present day interviews with many prominent figures in Petty’s life. These include but aren’t limited to, members of Petty’s band The Heartbreakers, producer Rick Rubin, and one of Petty’s daughters. The film gives a complete picture of the ups and downs of making Wildflowers, making it clear from the start why Petty came to talk about this album as the best he’s ever made.

The 16mm footage is what truly makes the documentary. Even though the footage is over 25 years old, it is restored and used in a way that feels fresh and not the least bit dated. Moreover, the film consistently gives viewers a sense that this new-found footage is grand, interesting, and important, providing a new look at a different and personal side of the famed rockstar. The footage pairs incredibly well with the interviews, with the film being most effective when it pairs the two: voiceovers of people explaining the significance of each moment as we see those moments themselves.

Biopic films and documentaries often suffer under the weight of trying to stuff too much in in a short amount of time. By focusing on a single aspect of Petty’s career and life, and despite the conventional documentary-making standards that flip-flop between interviews and footage, Somewhere You Feel Free is engrossing.

Even so, for viewers who aren’t Tom Petty fans or are unfamiliar with his career, Somewhere You Feel Free can sometimes feel inaccessible. That’s not to say the film isn’t watchable, because with all of the concert and performance footage, it definitely is. But if you don’t know the backstory, it often feels like pieces are missing from the puzzle, making the documentary difficult to understand. The film can stand on its own, but it’s more rewarding with background knowledge on Tom Petty’s character and his music.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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