Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: Director Mary Wharton Talks About the 2021 Centerpiece Film
Drawn from a newly discovered archive of 16mm film showing Tom Petty at work on his 1994 record Wildflowers, considered by many including Rolling Stone to be his greatest album ever, Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is an intimate view of a musical icon.
Read our interview with director Mary Wharton, an award-winning filmmaker who has dedicated her career to making music documentaries. Somewhere You Feel Free world premiered on Thursday, March 17 at SXSW Online and was the 2021 SXSW Film Festival’s Centerpiece headliner.
For SXSW Online registrants through April 18, select on demand content will remain available via our online event platform and Connected TV apps. Be sure to check out music journalist David Fricke and the filmmaking team behind Somewhere You Feel Free for their SXSW Online panel.
"The lesson of Wildflowers is that we all belong somewhere we feel free. I’ll be forever grateful that Tom Petty came into my life to teach me that, right when I needed it most." – Director Mary Wharton
In your own words, what does this project mean to you?
This project offered me a lifeline at a time when I felt completely adrift. I had recently left my home in New York City, fleeing the terrifying first wave of the pandemic. It broke my heart to leave the city, but it didn’t make sense to stay and I really didn’t know where I belonged. When I was offered the opportunity to find creative freedom in the world of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers it was like a box of sunshine had been handed to me in the middle of a dark time. Although I was trapped in my house like everyone else, my head was full of this beautiful music. The work of writing and working with the editor to craft this story is what got me through the uncertainty, loneliness and fear of living in quarantine. The lesson of Wildflowers is that we all belong somewhere we feel free. I’ll be forever grateful that Tom Petty came into my life to teach me that, right when I needed it most.
What motivated you to tell this story?
In 1982 I was a young, impressionable music and film geek who was obsessed with Mad Max when I saw the “You Got Lucky” music video on MTV. I was hooked immediately and have been a fan of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers ever since. The story of Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free was especially interesting to me because it’s such a rare opportunity to see an artist of his caliber at work and gain an understanding of his creative process. There is so much to learn from this little slice of Tom Petty’s life and I got lucky when I was given a front row seat.
What do you want the audience to take away?
Tom wrote about ordinary people with such empathy and compassion that he made us feel seen. But he was pretty guarded about his life so we didn’t always get to see him for who he was. I hope this film lets people see him in a new light and whether or not they are fans of his music, I hope they come away with a newfound appreciation for his humanity, humor and his artistry.
What were you doing when you found out you were accepted to SXSW?
Racing to finish the film! We submitted a very early rough cut and still had a lot of work to do in order to be ready to show the film. Getting invited to be part of SXSW lit a fire under our chairs to get it done quickly but without lowering the high creative bar that we had set for ourselves.
What made you choose SXSW to showcase your project to the world?
SXSW is the literal crossroads of music and film and seemed like the ideal place to debut a film about an American music icon. We are thrilled to take Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free to SXSW and honored to be the Centerpiece film, we could not have dreamed up a better way to introduce this film.
Is there a mantra or totem that inspires your creative process?
Always be listening! When making a documentary, you have to remember to always listen to your material, it will tell you what the film should be. Let the film talk to you, and sometimes it will surprise you.
Stay Tuned for SXSW 2022
Following the recent announcement of SXSW 2022 dates, we will also be opening up 2022 participation opportunities this summer including PanelPicker®, Film Festival submissions, Music Festival applications, and more. Stay tuned!
2021 SXSW Film Centerpiece, Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free – Credit Robert Sebree