Chance Encounter Between Tom Petty’s Daughter and Director Is Leading to New Documentary

by Chris Haney
(Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Earlier today, a new documentary about Tom Petty’s life and career in the early 1990s released on what would’ve been the legendary musician’s 71st birthday.

In the last year, Petty’s fans were treated to extended cuts from his famous Wildflowers sessions. While the rocker made a name for himself in the ’70s and ’80s, many consider the classic 1994 album his crowning achievement.

Sadly, Tom Petty passed away in October 2017. But his estate continues to provide fans with projects to help fill the void of losing one of their favorite artists. In fact, a chance encounter between Tom Petty’s daughter and veteran music documentarian Mary Wharton led to a new movie based on the rocker’s life around the time of the Wildflowers recordings.

Wharton recently spoke with Ultimate Classic Rock about her Tom Petty documentary. Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers has been in the works since last year. But she actually met the “I Won’t Back Down” singer as a young producer in 1994 as he worked on Wildflowers.

“I was completely charmed by him. Obviously, I was young and just starting my career, and he was certainly not the first celebrity I had met. But the first one of my kind of rock ‘n’ roll idols. … He was so charming and gracious, and struck me as just a really lovely southern gentleman. He was so smart and articulate and well-spoken,” Wharton said to UCR.

“And that interview that he did that day, we used a number of pieces from that interview in the film that we were able to license. He’s just really thoughtful and lovely in that interview. I’ll always treasure that memory of meeting him that day,” she added.

Wharton Called the Tom Petty Project ‘Perfect’ to Work On

More than 25 years later, the director got an unplanned phone call from Tom Petty’s daughter, Adria. She wanted to enlist Mary Wharton to head a new project based on tons of studio footage she had leftover from the Wildflowers sessions.

“It was really pretty open, quite honestly,” Wharton explained about the process of making the documentary. “I think one of the most important things in documentary filmmaking is to really listen to the material and let the film be what it needs to be. … If you’re making a documentary, you can’t control it as much as you can control a narrative, scripted film, right? So a lot of times it feels to me like you’re corralling wild horses, or herding cats, depending on the case.”

From their first phone call, Wharton knew it was the perfect project to work on, especially during the pandemic.

“I think that Adria was certainly open to, from the beginning, very creatively open to whatever seemed best. … It was an amazing phone call to get, because it was so early on in the pandemic that I didn’t even know how, or when, I was going to be able to work again. And here was this project that was pretty much archival-based. So it was perfect, it was something that I could just jump right into,” she said.

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers premiered in theaters today. Additionally, later this year, the movie will be available for free on Petty’s YouTube channel.