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'The best record we ever made': Tom Petty film captures the late rocker's mid-'90s career peak

About an hour in to “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell gets to the heart of what made his longtime friend and bandmate so special.

“I really miss this about him: Whatever record we were making, whoever the producer was, we would show up and go for greatness.”

This 89-minute documentary, which premiered Wednesday at South by Southwest as the online event's centerpiece film, captures Petty during the sessions for his multiplatinum 1994 opus “Wildflowers.” The album was one of many creative and commercial peaks for the California-via-Florida rocker, who died in October 2017 at age 66.

Petty became a star in the late 1970s with hits such as “American Girl” and “Refugee,” then had another breakthrough with his 1989 smash solo album “Full Moon Fever.” For “Wildflowers,” his first record on Warner Bros. after 15 years with MCA, Petty brought in studio guru Rick Rubin to co-produce with Campbell and himself.

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Crucially, also on hand was a camera crew led by Martyn Atkins, who documented much of the the recording process on 16mm black-and-white film. When that footage was unearthed recently, Adria Petty (Tom’s daughter) and producer Peter Afterman sought out Mary Wharton, who’d done a VH1 doc on Petty back when “Wildflowers” came out. Wharton had gone on to an accomplished career as a music documentarian, winning a Grammy in 2004 for a film about Sam Cooke.

“Somewhere You Feel Free” wisely stays focused on the specific window of 1993 to 1995, supplementing Atkins’ footage with additional clips from the era, including live footage from the "Wildflowers" tour. Interviews with Petty and others who helped create the album help to tell the story.

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Tom Petty in the studio with producer Rick Rubin during the sessions for the 1994 album "Wildflowers."

Present-day thoughts from Rubin, Campbell and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench offer long-term perspective about the album’s legacy. More interviews feature bassist Howie Epstein, who died in 2003; drummer Steve Ferrone, who replaced original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch during the “Wildflowers” sessions; Rubin’s studio associate George Drakoulias, who Petty said became “sort of our guru” during the sessions; and Alan “Bugs” Wiedel, the band’s longtime equipment manager.

In retrospect, it’s poignant that Petty’s band was called the Heartbreakers, because “Somewhere You Feel Free” is indeed heartbreaking to watch. We see Petty in his early 40s, old enough to have already become a legend but young enough to still have so much to give.

Losing him at 66 left his legions of fans with an emptiness that continues to linger. It’s hard not to imagine, for example, what Petty might have done in the autumn years that have been so productive for his fellow great American songwriter Willie Nelson.

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But the film, which mixes black-and-white and color cinematography to exquisite visual effect, is a welcome reminder of just how important Petty was as an artist, and how much his music endures.

Early on, Rubin talks about moving to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and falling in love with Petty’s “Full Moon Fever” album. “I would drive around listening to it over and over again,” he said, explaining that he’d not really gravitated toward Petty’s music when he was younger but eventually had come around.

“I didn’t realize how many great songs he had,” Rubin says. “How could there be this many great songs from one person?”

Photos:Tom Petty in Austin through the years

The film’s one weak point is an attempt to separate the albums Petty released under his own name (notably “Wildflowers” and “Full Moon Fever”) from those credited to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. To be fair, that partly came from Petty himself, who Rubin says had a notion that the presence of Epstein and Lynch determined whether or not it was a Heartbreakers album.

In reality, “Wildflowers” remained deeply tied to the band, with Campbell as co-producer and both Tench and Epstein integrally involved. Only Lynch is missing, and “Wildflowers” drummer Ferrone subsequently became a member of the band for all future records.

Even Petty himself seemed to come to terms with this, ultimately. As Tench notes during an illuminating conversation with Rubin and Campbell: “Till the very end, he would look at the band and go, ‘Wildflowers’ was the best record we ever made.”

An extended version of the album, "Wildflowers & All the Rest," came out last fall, adding many songs recorded for the sessions but not included on the original 1994 release.