Jacqueline edeling

When Tom Petty was at the height of his musical powers

In the last days of summer 2016, I got a call from Tom Petty’s office. They were in the early stages of planning an expanded edition of Wild flowers, his 1994 multi-platinum album – a career highlight, even for an artist of Petty’s pedigree – and wanted to know if I’d be willing to fly to Malibu to interview the legend about the period. The album hadn’t come together, but there was plenty of amazing stock photos and even never-before-seen footage from the recording sessions. A documentary on the making of the album was definitely in the cards.

Obviously, this interview never took place. Shortly after that initial call, I heard that a new plan was in place. Petty would be honored as MusiCares Person of the year ahead of the 2017 Grammy Awards, and a 40th anniversary tour, celebrating the Heartbreakers, Petty’s standout group throughout her long and illustrious career, would follow. Once this was done I was told that Petty would turn to the extension Wild flowers, and a tour, probably several nights to small theaters in major markets, would follow. We could then revisit the interview with Petty, as well as Wild flowers co-producers Rick Rubin and Mike Campbell, so “just be patient.”

At October 2, 2017, with his death in a Santa Monica hospital, the chance to sit down with one of the greatest songwriters of his generation to discuss the greatest artistic achievement of his career has evaporated, along with so many other things that mattered so much to all of us.

Last year, Petty’s family finally released the Wild flowers and all the rest box. Full of snippets, intimate demos, live recordings and early versions of songs Petty cut during release Wild flowers in the fertile period from 1993-95, it answered the question of what could have been, and recently achieved gold record status.

But what about that documentary that was mentioned to me so temptingly in confidence in 2016? Well it turned out that Petty’s family had more Wild flowerssurprises tied up their sleeves.

Tom Petty, Somewhere You’ll Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers, by Mary Wharton, director of Jimmy Carter: President of Rock and Roll, Sam Cooke: Legend and several other top-notch musical documentaries from early today in cinemas around the world in honor of what would have been Tom Petty’s 71st birthday, and it’s a treat for any Petty fan, recounting perhaps the most remarkable period of his amazing career with the same love and care as Petty’s estate showed in the assemblage Wild flowers and all the rest. (The film will debut on Petty’s YouTube channel later this year.)

Wharton says the task was daunting, not only because it was an artist she had loved since childhood and had met early in her career, but also because of what made her had preceded.

“There had already been a documentary made about it, by Peter Bogdanovich, a very famous established director. You know, just an epic four hour little documentary about Tom Petty, ”Wharton tells me, laughing at his debut on the project. “So it was really, ‘OK, what am I going to bring to that that hasn’t been done before about Tom Petty?'”

Finally, she realized that the story and the way forward were right in front of her.

“First, I realized that the creation of Wild flowers, once you’ve set the story train in motion, spurs this incredible story arc, ”says Wharton. “Because Tom decides to make a record first, then decides to do it with Rick Rubin, and then as you really kick the train off the rails you realize there’s a story much bigger than that. Also, I noticed, watching the longer documentary on him, that there are a lot of details about what happened in his life, but there is never much time spent digging a particular moment in his life and living that moment, because there is so much to cover. We had to live in a period of two or three years for the whole movie and explore what it meant to be Tom Petty at that point.

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty in studio

Courtesy of Robert Sebrée

“It became that magical, creative time, but it was an incredibly difficult time for Tom, personally,” recalls Benmont Tench, the Heartbreakers keyboardist who had known Petty since their teenage years, recalls the time Petty was in. a creative workshop. peak, but her first marriage was starting to fall apart. “I finally understand why Tom wanted to call it a solo album, despite the fact that almost everyone [in the band] finally came to play on it. I think I understand. He wanted a marked change from the sound of the band. He wanted to make a much more personal record.

Debuting earlier this year at SXSW, where he won the festival’s Audience Award, Somewhere where you will feel free won the award for Best Documentary Film at the Boulder Film Festival and received widespread critical acclaim throughout the film festival season. Wharton’s film offers a unique take on the period through never-before-seen 16mm footage shot during the making of Wild flowers, as well as new interviews with album co-producers Rick Rubin and Mike Campbell, as well as Tench and others close to Petty at the time.

“We had these great movie archives,” Wharton recalls. “Most of the material came from the four hours of footage filmed during one of the studio recording sessions, and then we supplemented it with other things, like the performance of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and Tom’s interviews, but all from the same time period, because we really wanted it to sound like a time capsule.

“I could hear the Paul Simon in some of the things he wrote. And I could definitely hear the Beatles. And there was still rock and roll. But I just thought they were great songs. “

“The point is, I loved his songwriting and used to write in different styles,” Tench adds. “So to me it was like, ‘Oh, he’s getting into this sort of thing. It is costs.’ Because I could hear the Paul Simon in some of the things he wrote. And i could absoutely hear the Beatles. And there was still rock and roll. But I just thought they were great songs. And even though I used to write great songs, and I didn’t think “Wow, that’s a change in songwriting”, I thought a song like “Wake Up Time “was unlike anything we had recorded before. It was like the climax, not lyrically, but musically, of what he had been writing since I had joined Mudcrutch. And I thought Rick brought out something different in them too. But I know about Tom — and that’s something I learned later, when we were putting the Wild flowers casket, it was a remarkable experience to write it.

While the process of setting up Wild flowers and all the rest began shortly after Petty’s untimely death, Somewhere where you will feel free did not come together until the cabinet was about to be completed.

“We edited this film in the middle of the pandemic, in the fall of 2020,” Wharton shares. “It was really a very dark time in America, but having the music of Tom Petty in my head 24/7, living and breathing and dreaming and eating and sleeping Tom Petty, I really felt like carrying a sun box. It was such a relief to be able to be creative during that time and in a time when I couldn’t see my friends, here are all those friends that I hadn’t been friends with before, because I felt really close to Tom and Rick and Mike and Ben.

“Well the band has always been like that to me,” Tench says when I mention Wharton’s comment. “From the first record to the end, I’ve always been a fan and a participant. And I think, in a way, we all have to be, because we would have done anything for this guy.

Recording of Rick Rubin and Tom Petty Wild flowers

Courtesy of Martyn Atkins

Ultimately, Somewhere where you will feel free is as much a love letter to the legions of Petty fans as it is to Wharton and those who worked on the original album to the man himself.

“There are so many great moments,” Wharton says of the emotional process of removing the best moments from the embarrassment of riches she encountered during the making of the film. “But, to me, they’re all like the pieces of the puzzle that fit together to form the image of who Tom Petty was at this really important point in his life.”

For Tench, unsurprisingly, everything revolves around the songs and the magic that was present from the early days of the recording sessions.

“The song ‘Wildflowers’ appeared in one pass without him even thinking about it,” Tench suggests of the album’s title track, a song that Little said had come to him fully formed as he was recording the original demo. “When a song turns out like that, you’re taken aback, but in a good way. So for him having an entire record of that caliber of song was really cool, and I don’t know if we’ve had a bunch of songs like that as a band since probably. [1979’s] To hell with the torpedoes. We had made some great records, and the songs were always fantastic, but they weren’t always that consistent. All songs on Wild flowers were knockout and really fit together in a very special way.

And Wharton, who spent over a year on lockdown night and day with Tom Petty in what was undoubtedly one of the highlights of a truly remarkable career, doesn’t mind missing out on it. man who made the soundtrack to so many of our lives. .

“It was difficult when we finished the movie,” she admits as we finish our conversation. “But I don’t think he’ll ever be there in my life. Because I know that I will be somewhere random, almost every day, and that there will be Tom Petty playing in the background. I never really realized how many times Tom Petty’s music is played until I got so intimately involved in his music that it’s like I literally can’t go anywhere without hearing Tom Petty’s music. . It’s incredible.”