Why Director of New Tom Petty Documentary Called the Project ‘Daunting’

by Jennifer Shea
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Late rocker Tom Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers, his second solo effort, went platinum in the U.S. and made Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Albums of All Time.  

But behind the scenes, Petty recorded the album as his marriage was dissolving. At the time, he was also grappling with substance abuse, Ultimate Classic Rock reports. That period is the subject of a new documentary, “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers.”

The documentary’s director, Mary Wharton, told UCR that despite her track record, the Tom Petty project was pretty intimidating. Wharton has previously directed documentaries on Sam Cooke, Joan Baez and Jimmy Carter.

The movie premieres today, which would have been Petty’s 71st birthday. The rock legend died on Oct. 2, 2017 in Santa Monica, California.

Tom Petty Documentarian Said the Film Was ‘Daunting’

Wharton was “completely charmed” by Petty upon meeting the rock legend in 1994. And she managed to use some of the footage from the interview she did then in the documentary. But despite having met Petty in person, Wharton felt some trepidation about tackling this project.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s so daunting,” she told UCR. “Always, it was daunting, because it’s an incredible album that is surrounded by the mythology. All the tracks that Tom always wanted to release, but he himself was kind of daunted. There was a sort of haunted quality to that material to him, because it was so strong and so powerful. And then to take on a film about an artist like Tom Petty, who was a perfectionist in everything that he did. Certainly the specter of that, and the incredibly high standards that he held himself to, for me, it was a scary thing to tackle, to try to hold myself to those same high standards.”

It was Petty’s daughter, Adria, who kick-started the project by reaching out to Wharton early on in the pandemic. They managed to put the documentary together relatively quickly. It’s a mix of archival footage and contemporary interviews with the likes of Rick Rubin, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell that Adria had begun shooting herself.

“It was, like, in the middle of a sort of dark time in America and around the world, here I was with this little box of sunshine,” Wharton said of the making of the documentary.

Petty Died of an Accidental Drug Overdose

Over the course of his career, Petty dropped three solo albums. That was on top of his 13 albums with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But it all came to a screeching halt in 2017, soon after Petty and his band had finished their 40th-anniversary tour.

Petty had been touring with a fractured hip, his family said in a Facebook post. And he was also dealing with emphysema and knee troubles. Petty’s family believes that as the tour progressed, he fully broke his hip. The pain was reportedly unbearable.

Petty had been prescribed a powerful cocktail of prescription medications for his pain. The Los Angeles County coroner later said his cause of death was “multisystem organ failure” brought on by the blend of fentanyl, oxycodone, temazepam, alprazolam, citalopram, acetyl fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl that he had taken, per CBS.

“As a family we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives,” Petty’s family said on Facebook.

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