While it’s difficult to believe, last month marked the sixth anniversary of the passing of Tom Petty. If there’s a Kubler-Ross subset of the stages of grief for great artists, one step is the crushing knowledge that his catalog is now finite. And of course, there’s the garden-variety heartache that accompanies the death of the front man of arguably the greatest American rock band.
But with a cinematic time capsule, Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free – The Making of Wildflowers, fans of the Heartbreakers get a final look back. It’s not new – there was a limited theatrical release in 2021 – but will now enjoy wide viewership thanks to Amazon Prime.
Directed by Mary Wharton and Anne Ethridge, it relies heavily on a tranche of old footage someone discovered in the early 2000s – a video diary of the making of what Petty considered his best work, shot from 1993-1995 and never seen before. There’s a surreal aspect that makes the film all the more haunting: Intermixed with scenes of the album’s production – Tom was in his early 40s and had a little more than 20 years to live – are present day interviews with Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, along with Rick Rubin, the producer Petty settled on reluctantly. It’s counterintuitive to hear Petty say at the time, “You know, Rick was a lot younger than all of us,” then cut to a scene of the silver-bearded uber mensch producer reflecting on work now three decades old.
The Wildflowers album – not a Heartbreakers record – came at a time of transition for Petty, whose marriage was falling apart, and the band. The rhythm section underwent a 100 percent turnover. Drummer Stan Lynch, seemingly always mercurial and contrarian, was underwhelmed with the Wildflowers demos and moved on. The last cut he ever played with the band was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and that wasn’t even a part of those sessions. Petty needed two more cuts for a greatest hits album he owed the suits to get out of his deal with MCA.
Bassist Ron Blair – burned out by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – punched out to open a lingerie shop. Petty poached Howie Epstein from Del Shannon, who would put in ten great years before succumbing to heroin. His presence on screen evokes another heartache.
New drummer Steve Farrone, who would be a Heartbreaker to the end, tells the wonderful story of his top-secret audition. He had no idea what was going on, “Then I walked in and saw Tom Petty and Mike Campbell in the control room, and said, ‘Ooooooooh.’”
Footage of the composing/arranging/recording is bittersweet; seeing the chemistry, the artistry – the love – it’s so beautiful and touching. But the knowledge that you’ll never see it again will leave a hole in your heart. A constant back-and-forth during the process was whether to make Wildflowers a double album. That was ultimately decided in the negative, and Petty spent three agonizing months just whittling and sequencing the final 15 songs that make up the hour-and-six-minute record. But the scrawny kid from Gainesville was rewarded with a posthumous triumph in 2020, when the mammoth, 54-track Wildflowers & All The Rest was released.
Rest easy, Tom. You’re missed.