Review: ‘Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,’ starring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

March 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty in “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” (Photo courtesy of Tom Petty Legacy, LLC/Warner Music Group)

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free”

Directed by Mary Wharton

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the documentary film “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” features an almost all-white group of people (and one black person) in the music industry, in this chronicle of the making of Tom Petty’s 1994 album “Wildflowers.”

Culture Clash: While recording the album, Petty was going through personal problems (such as a failing marriage), he battled with Warner Bros. Records over songs that he wanted on the album, and he fired longtime Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch.

Culture Audience: Fans of Petty are the obvious target audience, but “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” will also appeal to people who like classic rock music and behind-the-scenes stories about making albums.

Tom Petty in “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” (Photo courtesy of Tom Petty Legacy, LLC/Warner Music Group)

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” has the look and feel of many other documentaries that focus on the making of a specific album. There’s nothing really groundbreaking about this documentary, and it’s not the type of movie that people should feel like they need to see in movie theaters. The documentary is a must-see for Tom Petty’s fans and other people who are inclined to like classic rock. And it could be entertaining to people who are interested in the art of creating songs. Everyone else might think this movie is a little boring.

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” chronicles the making of Petty’s 1994 “Wildflowers” album, which he said in many interviews was the best album he ever made. The album was recorded at the Los Angeles recording studios Sound City and Ocean Way Recording. And musically, it was a departure for Petty because it didn’t have as much of the signature jangly guitar sound that’s on his previous albums. Instead, “Wildflowers” included a full classical orchestra and had songs with a more somber or pensive mood than his previously released tunes.

Petty died of an opioid drug overdose at age 66 in 2017. Years earlier, he revealed that he was addicted to heroin from 1996 to 1998. Therefore, Petty’s drug addiction is not an issue that’s brought up on this documentary, since the most serious years of his addiction happened after “Wildflowers” was made. In the documentary, there is some mention in Petty’s own words about how unhappy he was in his marriage to his first wife Jane at the time he made “Wildflowers.” The former spouses were married from 1974 to 1996.

Directed by Mary Wharton, “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” (which premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival) consists primarily of archival footage of Petty in the recording studio that was originally filmed in color but is, for the most part, presented in black and white in the documentary. A prologue in the documentary explains that the archival footage from these “Wildflowers” recording sessions and the subsequent tour were filmed on 16mm film between 1993 and 1995 by Petty’s longtime videographer Martyn Atkins. The footage was discovered in an archive in early 2020.

Also in black and white is more current documentary interview footage of surviving members of Petty’s band The Heartbreakers, as well as music producer Rick Rubin, who all worked on “Wildflowers” and share their fond memories of those recording sessions. The documentary mostly sticks to celebrating Petty’s music and the camaraderie that he had with his band members, Rubin and other people involved in making the album. There is some but not a great deal of insight into the drama that went on behind the scenes with Petty battling MCA Records (his former record label) and starting fresh with Warner Bros. Records, with “Wildflowers” as his first album released by Warner Bros.

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” is at its best when viewers get to see how the “Wildflowers” songs were crafted and recorded. There are the hits, of course, such as “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Wreck Me” and “It’s Good to Be King.” But there are also several album tracks (including “Harry Green” and “Climb That Hill Blues”) that didn’t make it on to the original release of the 15-song “Wildflowers,” because Warner Bros. disagreed with Petty’s wishes to release “Wildflowers” as a 25-song double album. In 2020, the deluxe package album “Wildflowers & All the Rest” was released with the original “Wildflowers” album, plus previously unreleased studio tracks and live recordings from the “Wildflowers” era.

Even though the Heartbreakers were part of the recording sessions for “Wildflowers,” the album was officially a Petty solo record, and it was the follow-up to his wildly successful 1989 solo debut album, “Full Moon Fever.” Jeff Lynne, the mastermind of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), produced “Full Moon Fever” and the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1991 album “Into the Great Wide Open,” as well as several albums from other artists. Lynne was also a bandmate of Petty’s in their all-star supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, whose other members were George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.

In the documentary, Rubin talks about how he was flatly turned down by MCA when he offered to produce Petty’s second solo album. “I was told that Tom worked exclusively with Jeff Lynne, and there was no chance that I’d ever get to work with him [Tom Petty]. It was a cold brush-off.”

Up until that point, Rubin was mostly known in the music business for working in hip-hop (he co-founded Def Jam Records) or producing rock artists who were younger than Petty, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the late 1980s, Rubin left Def Jam and founded Def American Recordings, later renamed American Recordings. Def American’s biggest successes in the early 1990s were the bluesy rock band the Black Crowes and the thrash metal band Slayer.

And so, by the early 1990s, Rubin wasn’t exactly the first person people had in mind to produce Petty’s second solo album. By his own admission, Rubin says in the documentary that he wasn’t even a fan of Petty’s music until he heard the “Full Moon Fever” album and became obsessed with it.

But three things happened that helped Rubin to become the producer of the “Wildflowers” album.

  • (1) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers left MCA Records and signed to Warner Bros. Records, the record company for Red Hot Chili Peppers, a funk-influenced rock band had its first major breakthrough success with the Rubin-produced 1991 album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.”
  • (2) Petty, as he says in the documentary, was ready to make some big musical changes.
  • (3) Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell recommended Rubin to Petty, and they all genuinely liked each other from the start. Rubin, Petty and Campbell are all credited with producing the “Wildflowers” album.

As Petty describes it in the documentary’s archival footage: “I love Jeff Lynne dearly, but I thought I should do something else. Mike Campbell suggested Rick. He said, ‘I think you’ll like him.’ So I called him [Rubin] up.”

It’s mentioned more than once in the documentary that Rubin and Lynne couldn’t be more different from each other as producers. Lynne is a multi-instrumentalist and a meticulous recording craftsman who likes to take pieces of songs and build them in layers. Rubin barely knew how to play guitar during the “Wildflowers” sessions, and he prefers to make records with all the band members present at the same time and recording live.

Petty explains Rubin’s producing style in the documentary: “Rick Rubin really loves music, and that’s why I decided to work with him. It’s not because of his technical skill. He plays no instrument, really. He’s learning to play guitar … He’s not a corporate man … In a way, he’s guided me back to a musical place where I feel comfortable.”

In an archival interview from the “Wildflowers” recording sessions, Rubin says, “What I have to offer is as a fan. I can come in and say what I like and what I don’t like. And I don’t necessarily know why, but just trying to be true to [Petty’s] own taste and try to steer it in a direction that feels natural and good to me.”

The documentary also has a more current interview with Rubin, Campbell and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench sitting down together. They further discuss the contrast between Lynne and Rubin as producers. Tench comments, “The records with Jeff are beautiful pop records. And my participation was minimal on both the records. Because, you know, Jeff had an idea, and there’s a keyboard, and he’s going to play it, and that’s great.”

Tench states how Rubin’s style of producing affected the “Wildflowers” recording sessions: “This is almost like taking what you learned from Jeff and setting it free. It’s very focused on song craft and record craft, but there’s also a freedom in it that’s very cool.” Campbell adds that Rubin put more emphasis on live performances in the recording studio and by recording songs as “organic tracks and not one thing at a time.”

Also present for these recording sessions were orchestrator/conductor Michael Kamen (who died of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of 55) and George Drakoulias, a music producer who made a name for himself working as a producer and A&R executive for Def American acts such as the Black Crowes. At the time of the “Wildflowers” recording sessions, Drakoulias was still doing A&R for Def American. Unlike his then-boss Rubin, Drakoulias was a longtime fan of Petty’s by the time Drakoulias was included in the recording sessions for “Wildflowers.”

In the documentary, Drakoulias (who’s described as a “musical contributor” to “Wildflowers”) remembers with a laugh his experiences with Petty during those recording sessions: “He tolerated me. He found me amusing. Tom was a hero, and idol. ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ [the 1979 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album] was the record that really changed my life.”

Also interviewed in the documentary is Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone, a Brit who replaced original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch in the “Wildflowers” recording sessions. Ferrone later became an official member of the Heartbreakers and remained in the band until the group broke up after Petty’s death in 2017. In 1994, Ferrone was living in New York City as a session musician when he got a call about a “top-secret” audition. He didn’t know it was for the Heartbreakers until he arrived at the studio and saw Petty and Campbell there. Just like Rubin, Ferrone was recommended by Campbell to be brought into Petty’s musical inner circle.

Tench comments on how Ferrone was crucial to helping Petty achieve the sound that’s on “Wildflowers,” as exemplified by the bluesy cadence that the drums have on “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” “Ferrone was the key to cracking the code to sound different,” Tench says. In archival footage, Petty says why he decided Ferrone should be in the band: “He played instinctually. He played perfectly the first time through. And I liked him.”

As for Lynch’s ouster from the band, Petty says in voiceover commentary that it was because Lynch wasn’t fully on board with Petty’s new musical direction, and Petty got tired of what he describes as Lynch’s mercurial temperament: “He had a real explosive personality. He could be really sweet and very loving, and then he could be the biggest problem.”

Campbell says of Lynch parting ways with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “We were in a quagmire of disharmony, like a marriage. It happens.” Lynch is shown briefly in archival footage, but he is not in the documentary for any new interviews.

Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein (who died of a heroin overdose in 2003, at the age of 47) is also seen in archival footage. Epstein comments in archival footage: “Tom and I get along real good. I’ve never had one weird moment with him.” Meanwhile, Petty says about Epstein in footage from the Wildflowers” sessions: “I really appreciate him being my friend. It’s so hard to find people like Howie in the world who are so pure of spirit.”

Even though the Heartbreakers played on “Wildflowers,” why was it labeled a solo album from Petty instead of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album? Petty explained it years ago, but it’s repeated in the documentary. As he puts it: “I wanted the freedom. I really wanted to be free of the democratic process, but I think it was time to turn the corner and find another place to go. And that was ‘Wildflowers.'”

Just like on a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, Petty wrote the majority of the “Wildflowers” songs himself, with Campbell getting co-songwriting credit on a few songs. Petty might not be remembered as the greatest singer or guitarist, but there’s no question that he’s considered one of the greatest American rock songwriters in music history. In new interviews in the documentary, Tench and Campbell share their thoughts on Petty’s songwriting talent.

Campbell says, “I’ve worked with a lot of people—good writers and great singers—but I’ve never seen anybody who could do that like he could. He could just pull things out of the air in the moment.” Tench adds, “Tom was a great songwriter. I had always appreciated it and know that this is incredible to be in this band. But you almost take it for granted that Tom is going to come in with a great song.”

Two of the more personal songs on “Wildflowers” is “To Find a Friend” and “Don’t Fade on Me,” which Petty says were about his crumbling marriage. “I was becoming disenchanted in my marriage at the time,” which he says in a voiceover from archival footage. At the time, he says that he didn’t consciously write about this disintegrating relationship. “But when I hear [the ‘Wildflowers’ album], I can see it was working in the back of my mind somewhere.”

Petty and Jane’s daughter Adria Petty, who is an executive producer of the documentary, comments in an interview: “At the time that ‘Wildflowers’ was being written, he was definitely going through therapy for the first time. And that was an interesting door of perception that was opening.”

Adria Petty adds, “I think that feeling of confidence and self-examination at that time made him make a lot of different decisions about his life. He did it slowly, methodically and carefully. And they were painful for him.”

One of the big changes was Tom Petty’s split from MCA. Alan “Bugs” Weidel, the equipment/clubhouse manager for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, says that Petty was “never really happy with MCA. He really wanted to be on Warner Bros., and when that opportunity presented itself, he jumped on it.” The documentary includes new footage of Weidel reuniting with Campbell at the “clubhouse,” where the band’s instruments were kept.

And there’s archival footage of Petty, Rubin and Kamen in a room together and eating a small cake with a Warner Bros. logo on it. As they dig into the cake, Petty remarks jokingly, “We like to record for Warner Bros. because they taste good.” Rubin and Kamen are smiling and they seem amused too.

In a separate footage, Petty is heard saying in a voiceover about parting ways with MCA and moving on to Warner Bros.: “We had a long run at MCA and a very successful one. It just felt like time in life … I really just went to work for people I know. And I trust their instincts.”

However, the disputes that Petty had with Warner Bros. over how many songs should be on the “Wildflowers” album are mostly alluded to but not completely exposed in the documentary. The movie doesn’t show any screaming arguments with record company executives or lawyers. In fact, there are no “suits” shown or interviewed in this movie. And keeping out the corporate types from being in this film is probably the way that Petty would’ve wanted it.

Rather than getting into all the recording contract issues involved with the length of the “Wildflowers” album, the documentary footage puts more emphasis on Petty having a hard time deciding which songs he wanted on the album in the first place. The feeling that the documentary wants to convey is that Petty and the rest of the musical team ended up recording a lot more songs than originally expected because of Petty’s creative output and because they were having such a great time recording the album.

In new interviews for the documentary, Campbell chokes up a little when he says that listening to the songs on “Wildflowers” after Petty’s death is “emotionally hard … but other times it’s joyous. This is a whole plethora of experiences on the record.” Tench adds, “When you lose a great artist, you appreciate them more.”

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” shares part of its title with Christopher McKittrick’s unauthorized biography “Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty and Los Angeles,” which was published in 2020. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that the “Wildflowers” song “California” best summed up how Petty (who was a Florida native) felt about how California (specifically the Los Angeles area) changed his life. His daughter Adria says that after he moved to California, Petty was able to reinvent himself early in his career and became a success with the Heartbreakers.

People watching the documentary might feel that the black and white imagery makes the movie look dull and washed-out. Others might think having the movie in black and white gives it a classic look. There’s only one part of the documentary where it changes from black and white to color in the middle of the song. And that’s in studio footage of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which was recorded during the “Wildflowers” sessions but was not on the album. Instead, the song (the last Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song recorded with drummer Lynch) was released on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1993 “Greatest Hits” album.

The documentary’s color footage (mostly of the band performing on stage) definitely livens up the movie, but the black and white palette probably gives the movie a more consistent look and the ability to hide some of the color footage’s flaws. One of the constant themes in the movie is how much fun it was to record the album. But for anyone who knows what it’s like to record an album, it’s not the same energy as doing a live performance.

Creativity in a recording studio is captured in stops and starts, so people watching this documentary should not expect the movie to be like a non-stop adrenaline rush. It’s more like a respectful stroll into the dynamics of Petty and his musical team. It’s not going to interest people who like to see band conflicts in music documentaries. But for people who appreciate Petty’s music and talent, this documentary gives a worthwhile peek into his creative process.

2021 South by Southwest: What to expect at this year’s SXSW event

February 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

For the first time, South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals will be held online for the 2021 edition of the event, which takes place March 16 to March 20, and has been dubbed SXSW Online. After being cancelled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, SXSW is following safety protocols to offer a virtual experience for SXSW attendees in 2021. SXSW is arguably the best-known event in the U.S. that combines music, film, interactive and convergence programming.

Here are some of the anticipated highlights of the festival:

Keynote and Featured Speakers

Willie Nelson (Photo courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA)

The lineup of SXSW keynote speakers includes:

  • Grammy-winning artist Willie Nelson
  • Politician, activist and author Stacey Abrams in conversation with author N.K. Jemisin

Featured speakers include:

  • Author James Altucher
  • Favor president/CEO and H-E-B Chief digital officer Jag Bath in conversation with Inc editor-at-large Tom Foster
  • Talk show host/comedian Samantha Bee
  • Oregon congressman and Congressional Cannabis Caucus founder Earl Blumenauer with Politico federal cannabis policy reporter Natalie Fertig
  • Business mogul and Virgin Airlines founder Sir Richard Branson
  • Oscar-nominated film composer Nicholas Britell
  • Hip-hop artist Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky)
  • Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr
  • Electronic dance music duo The Chainsmokers
  • Singer Chiquis
  • Entrepreneur Mark Cuban
  • Interdisciplinary artist Torkwase Dyson
  • Relativity Space co-founder/COTim Ellis
  • Dance choreographer Laurieann Gibson
  • Author/psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb
  • Schwab executive vice president and chief digital officer Neesha Hathi
  • Singer/songwriter Imogen Heap
  • Oscar-wining filmmaker Barry Jenkins
  • Affectiva co-founder/CEO Dr. Rana el Kaliouby
  • Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson in conversation with Self magazine editor-in-chief Carolyn Kylstra
  • Twilio co-founder/CEO Jeff Lawson
  • Computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee
  • Grammy-winning rapper and “NCIS: Los Angeles” actor LL Cool J
  • Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey in conversation with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber
  • International yoga teacher, actress, writer and entrepreneur Adriene Mishler
  • Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian
  • Actor, filmmaker, author, and Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas
  • Sony Music Publishing chairman/CEO Jon Platt in conversation with Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Carole King
  • Emmy-winning producer, Grammy-winning artist and actress Queen Latifah
  • Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke
  • NFL football player Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
  • NFL football player Sebastian Tomich
  • NBA basketball star Chris Webber
  • Grammy-winning artist Wyclef Jean

Featured Sessions

Descriptions courtesy of SXSW:

  • Alexi Pappas & Bill Hader on Being a Bravey – A conversation with Olympian, actress, and author of the bestselling book Bravey, Alexi Pappas, in conversation with Emmy award-winning actor, filmmaker and creator/star of “Barry,” Bill Hader. Pappas and Hader will discuss their evolving relationship with mental health in their creative, professional, and personal lives, and on the lessons they’ve learned from mentors along the way.
  • Are We the Smartest Kids on the Block? – A conversation with Harvard University Professor of Science Avi Loeb, and New Scientist reporter Leah Crane about the search for extraterrestrial life, one of the most exciting frontiers in astronomy. With the recent discoveries on the cloud deck of Venus and studies of the weird interstellar object `Oumuamua’, find out how the search for unusual electromagnetic flashes, industrial pollution of planetary atmospheres, artificial light or heat, artificial space debris or something completely unexpected holds the promise of advancing and maturing both science and society.
  • Beyond the Gender Binary – With increasing recognition of the fluidity of gender, the time has come for a 21st century approach to gender justice. Dividing billions of people into one of two categories “man or woman” is not natural, it is political. Gender diversity is an integral part of our existence. It always has been, and it always will be. The gender binary – the idea that there are only two separate and opposite genders – was built to create conflict and division, not foster creativity and humanity. In this conversation ALOK and Demi Lovato will speak about the status of trans rights in the United States and the power of creative self-expression in the face of gender norms.
  • Bruce Mau: Designing for the Cluster – Bruce Mau applies his MC24 design principles and his new life-centered approach to confronting the simultaneous cluster cascade of crisis that he calls “The Cluster: Pandemics – Racial and Social Justice – Climate – Food Insecurity – Governance.” In this conversation with philosopher and writer Sanford Kwinter, Mau will demonstrate that all of these global challenges are interrelated and that they have their origin in a fundamental crisis of empathy.
  • Building Equity In Startup Communities – A discussion about scaling equity throughout the technology, startup, and venture ecosystem to ensure a path to shared prosperity for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous People of Color in the fourth industrial revolution and beyond. Foundry Group and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld, and 100 Black Angels & Allies Fund and Opportunity Hub co-founder Rodney Sampson will discuss their strategies for operationalizing diversity, equity and inclusion in the startup ecosystem, moderated by Business Insider reporter Dominic-Madori Davis.
  • Can 5G Transform the Live Music Experience? – In the last year we have felt the absence of live music. Artists have stepped up and gotten creative to reach fans virtually with some amazing results – but it can’t replace the impact of live performances. As we look forward to the return of live music, artists have a new platform to help deliver innovative experiences – 5G. The next generation of cellular delivers capabilities that can take the live experience to new levels of immersion and unlock new opportunities for artist creativity. Join Cristiano Amon, President and CEO-elect of wireless leader Qualcomm, and Grammy-nominated DJ Steve Aoki and hear from two visionaries about the future of the live experience in a 5G world.
  • The Chainsmokers on launching MANTIS VC – Grammy Award-winning and Billboard Chart topping artist/producer duo, The Chainsmokers, are a dominating musical force with a diverse repertoire of songs that have led them to become one of world’s biggest recording artists. Alex Pall and Drew Taggart have expanded The Chainsmokers’ empire into film and television, tequila, philanthropy, and most recently their venture capital firm Mantis. Hear their story on how the duo have evolved their music career into so much more with Andreessen Horowitz Managing Partner Chris Lyons.
  • A Conversation with Desus Nice and The Kid Mero – A conversation with multi-talented comedians, authors of the New York Times bestseller “God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons from the Bronx,” co-hosts of Showtime’s first late-night talk show “Desus & Mero” and the long-running Bodega Boys podcast, Desus Nice and The Kid Mero.
  • A Conversation with Noah Hawley and Andrew Bird – Set in Kansas City 1950, Fargo’s fourth installment follows two crime syndicates jockeying to control an alternate economy of exploitation and graft while fighting for a piece of the American dream. Join Noah Hawley (creator / executive producer / director / writer) and Grammy Award-nominated musician Andrew Bird for a not-to-be-missed conversation about how a concert in Austin lead to Bird’s acting debut in “Fargo.” Moderated by Whitney Friedlander. All four installments of the critically acclaimed limited series are currently available to stream on FX on Hulu.
  • A Conversation with the Russo Brothers and Elizabeth Banks – A fireside chat between visionary directors/producers Anthony and Joe Russo (“Welcome to Collinwood,” “Arrested Development,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Relic,” “Mosul” and “Cherry”) and acclaimed actress, director, writer, and producer Elizabeth Banks (“Charlie’s Angels,” “The Hunger Games” and “Shrill”). Banks will talk to the Russo Brothers about their new film “Cherry,” as well as the work they are doing with their company, AGBO. “Cherry” stars Tom Holland and is based on the critically acclaimed debut novel by Nico Walker. It will be released in theaters in February and on Apple TV+ in March.
  • COVID-19: The New Reality – Dr. Michael Osterholm, joined by health economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, will speak to the SXSW community about what is next in the fight against COVID-19. From the immediate concerns around new variants to the “collateral damage” we face from this pandemic, Dr. Osterholm and Ms. Sarasohn-Kahn will share insights to help navigate public health in 2021 and beyond.
  • Evolving the Gaming Industry with CouRage & Loaded – Gaming is taking off and bringing new opportunities for creators, brands and entertainment companies. Loaded, the leading management company for some of the world’s biggest professional gamers will host a special Q&A with leading content creator CouRage to examine the state of the today’s gaming industry and how the creator community has evolved the business for the better. The talk with Loaded VP of Talent Bridget Davidson will highlight key learning from CouRage’s successful career, as well as spotlight how brands and other non-endemic companies can work with creators to capture both eyeballs and engagement.
  • Forging a New Social Contract for Big Tech – Beyond privacy, revised liability laws can hold companies accountable for what they disseminate online. Antitrust actions could check the flow of wealth to the small number of companies that control platforms, aggregators, and algorithms. A lightweight horizontal regulation could add a safety layer to the high-risk applications of artificial intelligence. This discussion features U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar; Denmark tech ambassador Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen; Executive Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager; and President & Co-founder Center for Humane Technology Tristan Harris. The session will focus on the role for technology companies in the 21st Century and what a new “social contract” could look like for Big Tech – in both Europe and the United States.
  • Gene Editing: The Biotech Revolution of our Times – Bestselling author Walter Isaacson has established himself as the biographer of creativity, innovation, and genius. He wrote about Einstein, a genius of the revolution in physics, and Steve Jobs, a genius of the revolution in digital technology. Though the past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet, Isaacson argues we are now on the cusp of a third revolution in science—a revolution in biochemistry that is capable of curing diseases, fending off viruses, and improving the human species. With the invention of CRISPR, we can edit our DNA. CRISPR has been used in China to create “designer babies” that are immune from the AIDS virus and in the U.S. to cure patients of sickle cell anemia. With the life-science revolution, children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study the code of life — and all the moral dilemmas this brings. Isaacson will be joined in conversation with award-winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author, and a co-founder of Stand Up to Cancer Katie Couric.
  • Indigenous Peoples Hold the Key to Saving Earth – For centuries, Indigenous communities have served as guardians of the environment, protecting nature, respecting flora and fauna, and using traditional knowledge and wisdom passed down over generations. They safeguard 80% of biodiversity left in the world, which is key to turning around the climate crisis, as biodiverse areas are major carbon sinks. In this panel, Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader from the Waorani community in Ecuador and founding member of Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Ceibo Alliance and Amazon Frontlines speaks with Julia Jackson, Founder of Grounded.org, to discuss why climate philanthropy must be reimagined to protect the future of our planet, by directing resources to indigenous communities who are at the frontlines of our climate emergency.
  • Immersive Retail: Connected Shopping in a New Era – A conversation about the acceleration in changes to the retail environment and what major initiatives the retail industry is pursuing to enable the widespread proliferation of AR/VR and 3D content for e-commerce and retail with TechTalk/Studio president and co-founder Kevin O’Malley, IBM Global Business Strategy Partner Silke Meixner, and Unity Head of Industry Verticals, Operate Solutions, Tony Parisi.
  • Late Night Girls Club: Samantha Bee & Amber Ruffin – Samantha Bee (host and executive producer of the WGA nominated, Emmy Award-winning show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) in conversation with Amber Ruffin (writer, executive producer and host of WGA Award-nominated series The Amber Ruffin Show). The two will discuss the trials and tribulations of covering politics in today’s unpredictable climate from a unique, comedic point of view. As the longest running correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bee eventually went out on her own in 2016 with Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The show continues to use political satire to entertain, educate, and empower viewers while keeping the government in check. Ruffin is also an Emmy and WGA Award-nominated writer and performer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, and was the first African American female to write for a late-night network talk show in the U.S.
  • Live Music in Venues: What’s Next? – 2020 was a year of catastrophic impact for the live music industry as the pandemic brought the industry to a screeching halt. A year later, this session brings together independent venue perspectives from across the US., including Troubadour talent booker Amy Madrigali, Iridium director of artist relations & programming Grace Blake, First Avenue Productions president and CEO Dayna Frank and moderated by Pollstar, VenuesNow executive editor Andy Gensler. How have they been able to support developing talent? What’s ahead for their establishment and how they can get back to supporting a full schedule of acts?
  • Melinda Gates + Kelly Corrigan Talk Big Change – For more than two decades, Melinda Gates has been on a mission. Her goal, as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, she has come to a critical conclusion: when we lift up women, we lift up humanity. In conversation with podcaster, PBS host, and bestselling author Kelly Corrigan, Gates will discuss her bestselling book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” and its stories of the empowered women Gates has met over the years. Gates will talk about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work around family planning, education, and gender equality, and she will call us to action—urging us to drive progress in our homes, workplaces, and communities.
  • Music’s Limitless Variations – Hear from Lenzo Yoon, the Global CEO of BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment (hereafter referred to as Big Hit), as he explains how Big Hit was able to see what comes next, as well as prepare for the future at every critical juncture, and share Big Hit’s past, present and tomorrow. Yoon presents prospects and insights on the future of the K-pop industry and, furthermore, on the future of the global entertainment industry.
  • Ocean Storytelling with James Cameron & Brian Skerry – Join world-renowned filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer at Large James Cameron and National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry on a guided adventure into the deep blue to discuss the upcoming Disney+ original documentary series Secrets of the Whales. Filmed over three years in 24 locations, avid underwater conservationists Cameron and Skerry join forces to deliver an epic, awe-inspiring look at the incredible life and culture of whales and how the world’s largest mammals are facing the challenge of an ever-changing ocean. Moderated by OceanXplorers executive producer Orla Doherty.
  • The Quest Effect: Inside VR’s Next Chapter – Anyone who has entered virtual reality knows what a transformative experience donning a headset can be. Until recently, that experience was enjoyed mainly by hard-core VR enthusiasts. This year, all-in-one VR has become better, more powerful, and more affordable, expanding and changing the makeup of who spends time in VR. Now, that new group is discovering how great VR can be — not only for games, but also for fitness, media, hangouts with friends, and even real work. Join Mark Rabkin, Vice President of Oculus at Facebook, for a discussion about the future of VR, its changing ecosystem, and what its recent success means for the development of the next computing platform.
  • STARZ’S “Power” Universe Collides – Join STARZ’S Power Universe co-creator, Curtis “50 Cent” JacksonPower Book II: Ghost cast: Michael Rainey Jr.Mary J. Blige, and Cliff “Method Man” SmithPower Book III: Raising Kanan cast: Mekai Curtis and Patina Miller; and Power Book IV: Force lead: Joseph Sikora, for the first time ever as the Power Universe collides. Moderated by media personality and bestselling author Angie MartinezPower stars will discuss: the legacy of the Power Universe, the latest on upcoming seasons, the future and fate of new and iconic characters.
  • Ted Lasso: Emotion in the Edit – Join producers and members of the Ted Lasso editorial team in a panel discussion on the magic of Bill Lawrence shows (ScrubsCougar TownSpin City) and how editorial is the true partner in landing the jokes, drawing out emotion, and making it feel like you’re spending 30 minutes with your long time pack of friends. American Cinema Editors (ACE) CinemaEditor Magazine writer Nancy Jundi will moderate the panel with representatives from the Ted Lasso creative and editorial team (Bill LawrenceKip KroegerMelissa McCoy, and A.J. Catoline) to elaborate on the many considerations that go into building and honoring a character across episodes, seasons and a series.
  • Who Controls the Past: The Tulsa Race Massacre – How is it possible that the 1921 massacre of as many as thousands of Black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was almost erased from US history? And why is it finally penetrating the national consciousness? Featured in HBO’s The Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, this history survived because of the dedicated efforts of Black Tulsans, including the descendants of survivors, who have made it their life’s work to uncover what really happened and make sure we never forget. This session, moderated by Jeffery Robinson from Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, examines the work of activists Dr. Tiffany CrutcherChief Egunwale F. Amusan, and Kristi Orisabiyi Williams to take control of the historical narrative, and in so doing, to force a reckoning on racial justice in this country and a long overdue conversation on reparations for Black Americans.
  • Why Do We Fear Innovation? – A conversation featuring actress, author, and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik and historian, philosopher, and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari, moderated by Tech Open Air founder Niko Woischnik. From the printing press to vaccines to artificial intelligence, the introduction of almost any transformative technology has been met with wonder as well as fear and rejection. Many of history’s greatest inventors were considered heretics – the archetype of the mad scientist exists for a reason. Why does the new still scare us? What does it take to build acceptance for transformative ideas? How does the unprecedented scientific progress to deliver COVID vaccines influence this? What role does disinformation play in shaping our fears? How can we ensure innovators consider ethical issues, so outcomes can lead to the betterment of people and the planet? What can innovators learn from artists and creators of fiction? Presented by Leaps by Bayer and Tech Open Air Berlin.
  • Why The Music Biz is Buzzing About the Metaverse – In the midst of the 2020 global pandemic, one of the biggest concerts ever took place in the virtual worlds of Roblox. Two-time Grammy Award winner Lil Nas X gave a performance debut of his new single ‘Holiday’ and other top hits, dancing and socializing with fans, and attracting over 30 million concert views in this revolutionary music experience. The concert’s unprecedented success was made possible by the Metaverse, a social and technological phenomenon driven by a new generation growing up online and global platforms paving a new way for people to be together, even when they can’t in person. Hear from Maverick Management music manager Zach Kardisch, futurist and CEO of Futures Intelligence Group Cathy Hackl, Roblox Global Head of Music Jon Vlassopulos, and Columbia Records SVP, Experiential Marketing and business development Ryan Ruden about how the Metaverse is shaping the future of music business, today.
  • Breaking the Sonic Color Line: A discussion about authenticity of voice in media, defeating racial stereotypes in voice acting, the impact of race in audio ads and how the industry can come together and make real change featuring DJ, actress and entrepreneur MC Lyte; Pandora Group Creative Director Roger Sho Gehrmann; and voice-over and television actress Joan Baker.
  • The Chainsmokers on launching MANTIS VC: Grammy Award-winning and Billboard Chart topping artist/producer duo, The Chainsmokers, are a dominating musical force with a diverse repertoire of songs that have led them to become one of world’s biggest recording artists. Alex Pall and Drew Taggart have expanded The Chainsmokers’ empire into film and television, tequila, philanthropy, and most recently their venture capital firm Mantis. Hear their story on how the duo have evolved their music career into so much more.
  • A Conversation with Icons Queen Latifah and LL COOL J: From the mic to the big screen, award-winning rappers, actors and producers Queen Latifah and LL Cool J have been major forces in the entertainment industry for over three decades. Queen Latifah executive produces and stars as the first female Equalizer, Robyn McCall, in the reimagining of the series Equalizer, and LL Cool J stars as Special Agent Sam Hanna on “NCIS: Los Angeles.” Join them for a lively, in-depth conversation about their illustrious careers in music, television and movies (in front and behind the cameras), the cultural resonance and timeliness of their series, and much more.
  • From Moonlight to The Underground Railroad: Barry Jenkins & Composer Nicholas Britell: A conversation with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins and with Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning composer Nicholas Britell (Succession), where they will discuss the joy, delicate nuances, challenges and unexpected discoveries from their work together. The pair will talk about their unique creative process in building a singular audiovisual identity with a specific focus on their upcoming Amazon Original limited series, The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Jenkins and Britell first collaborated on Moonlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. During the making of Moonlight, the duo formed an inimitable rapport that brought them back together again for If Beale Street Could TalkThe Underground Railroad will stream in more than 240 countries and territories worldwide on Amazon Prime Video in 2021.
  • Hi, I’m Dave: Hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the best TV shows of 2020, FXX’s DAVE is based on the life of Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky), and centered on a neurotic man who’s convinced himself that he’s destined to be one of the best rappers of all time. The critically-acclaimed first season explored ambition, mental illness and masculinity in the world of hip-hop. Join co-creator/executive producer/writer/star Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky), co-creator/executive producer Jeff Schaffer, executive producer Saladin Patterson and series star GaTa for DAVE’s first panel at SXSW. Season 1 is available on FX on Hulu; season two will premiere on FXX in 2021.
  • How GenZ Duets the News on TikTok: Hear about tactics publishers are using to build relationships with young audiences on TikTok, and the content that moves audiences to action with The Washington Post video producer Dave JorgensonNowThis politics producer Ian McKenna; and content creator Jackie James.
  • Leading Safely + Motivating Empathetically: Learn how the hospitality industry have changed their tactics to adapt to the ever-changing health and wellness regulations and lead, motivate and engage their employees, colleagues and communities; eaturing Blackberry Farm Vice President of Food & Beverage Andy ChabotFood & Wine editor-in-chief Hunter Lewis; executive chef and Cúrate Bar de Tapas and La Bodega by Cúrate co-owner Katie Button; and award-winning chef and activist Marcus Samuelsson
  • .Making Emotional Connections With Volumetric Video: Hear from three seasoned creatives on the most effective way to make emotional connections through volumetric video with writer, director, and new media artist Illya Szilak; Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studios creative director Jason Waskey, and producer and Atlas V co-founder Antoine Cayrol.
  • RIP Live Shows? Concerts in the Time of COVID: A conversation about the ways the live/touring industry are trying to stay afloat, what’s working, what isn’t, and what still needs to be done to save the music we love, featuring Driift general manager Adam Shore; Panache Booking and Panache Management founder Michelle Cable; and Paradigm Talent Agency Executive, Wilder Records founder and Home School co-founder Tom Windish.

Music Performances

There are normally about 2,000 artists who perform at SXSW every year. However, due to nightclub closures, the performance lineup has been reduced for 2021. Some of the announced artists who will be performing virtually include Indigo Sparke, Place to Bury StrangersFrancisca Valenzuela, SquidGrrrl GangDarkooSamantha Sanchez, Holy Fuck, Astrid Sonne, NAYANA IZ, and Jealous

Showcases and presenters include AfroFuture Sounds (British Underground & DAJU Presents), Hotel Vegas & Hotel Free TV, Damnably, EQ Austin, Jazz re:freshed Outernational, FOCUS Wales, Roskilde Festival, Taiwan Beats, Close Encounter Club, Sounds from Spain, M for Montreal, Flipped Coin KOREA, Carefree Black Girl, New Zealand Music, KUTX The Breaks, Dedstrange, Fierce Panda x End of the Trail, Brazil Inspires the Future, and ÅÄÖ…Sounds Swedish.

Movie and TV Premieres

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)

SXSW has a wide variety of feature-length and short films. In 2021, the SXSW Film Festival has music documentaries as its opening, centerpiece and closing films. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” is the opening film, the Charli XCX quarantine chronicle “Alone Together” is the centerpiece, and “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” is the closing film.

Here are some of the more high-profile feature films that will have their world premieres at the festival: The psychological thriller “Here Before,” starring Andrea Riseborough as a woman questioning reality. The drama “Language Lesson,” starring Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass as a Spanish teacher and her student who become friends. And the superhero action flick “The Spine of Night,” starring Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel and Joe Manganiello.  Documentary world premieres include “United States vs. Reality Winner”; “Introducing, Selma Blair”; “WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn”; “Hysterical,” about female stand-up comedians;

TV shows that will have episodes premiering at SXSW 2021 include Starz’s “Confronting a Serial Killer,” showrunner Po Kutchins and director Joe Berliner’s chronicle of the relationship between serial killer Sam Little and author Jillian Lauren; HBO Max’s “Made for Love,” starring Cristin Milioti as a divorcée who’s out for revenge; and the third season of Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” and Amazon Prime Video’s thriller series “Them.”