Something essential and irreplaceable about rock ‘n’ roll — and America — ended when Tom Petty died, in 2017, at 66. With his band the Heartbreakers and solo he created some of the most anthemic and intimate hits of the 1970s to the 2000s, such as “American Girl” (1976), “Refugee” (1980), the much-abused “I Won’t Back Down” (1989), and many more.
In “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers,” director Mary Wharton shares a cache of previously unseen black-and-white 16mm footage of the behind-the-scenes composing and recording of Petty’s 1994 solo album of the title. It turned out to be one of the musician’s most successful releases, a bittersweet, triple-platinum blockbuster, featuring hits like “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “You Wreck Me.”
It also marked an emotional crisis in his life — his break-up with his wife of 20 years and subsequent addiction to heroin.
Wharton doesn’t touch on the latter, though she does interview Petty’s daughter Adria Petty (who provided the lost film) about the break-up, which is discussed briefly. She also interviews the album’s producer, Rick Rubin (last seen in this year’s docuseries “McCartney 3, 2, 1″), and Heartbreaker bandmembers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, who bring some insight into Petty’s genius but mostly remind us how terrific and complicated he was.
The found footage of the recording sessions dominates the film. Loosely shaped by Wharton, it projects the kind of cinéma-vérité urgency of classic rock documentaries like “Don’t Look Back” (1967), “Let It Be” (1969), and “Gimme Shelter”(1970), though without the epic edge. Backed by contemporaneous interviews with Petty and charming music-video-like interludes (time-lapse blooming flowers, “Yellow Submarine”-like animation, and the like) the film presents an engaging if limited chapter in a rock ‘n’ roll legend’s life.
“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers” screens on Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Fenway, Boston Common, Kendall Square Cinemas and at the Coolidge Corner. Go to www.tompettyfilm.com/tickets.
As seen in Liz Garbus’s thoughtful, affecting, and visually impressive “Becoming Cousteau,” it took some bitter ironies for Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) to become a prophet of environmental disaster. In 1956 his groundbreaking first film “The Silent World” (co-directed by Louis Malle), a dazzling underwater tour of the Mediterranean and environs, introduced audiences to the wonders to be found beneath the ocean. However, the film had been funded by oil companies for promotional purposes; and in it Cousteau and his crew committed ecological offenses, including massacring sharks feeding off a dying baby whale (which they had themselves injured) and using dynamite on coral reefs to further their investigations.
But Cousteau soon recognized the danger of abusing our natural resource and the legendary underwater adventurer, filmmaker, TV celebrity, and activist would increasingly issue dire warnings about the dangers of polluting, despoiling, and exploiting the ocean. Eventually the producers of his popular and transformative TV series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” (1968-1976), would pull him off the air because they thought his shows were becoming too depressing. Cousteau would persevere, despite such disappointments and in the face of crushing personal tragedies, and would inspire generations to study, value, and protect nature.
Was it all for naught? Cousteau would take little satisfaction in seeing how accurate his direst prophecies have turned out be.
“Becoming Cousteau” screens at the Boston Common 19 beginning Oct. 21. Go to films.nationalgeographic.com/becoming-cousteau.
A combination of sorts of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s “One Child Nation” (2019) and Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” (2018), Amanda Lipitz’s “Found” takes up the story of three American teenage girls, each adopted from Chinese orphanages, who inadvertently learn they’re cousins, via a DNA search through 23andMe. Communicating online, they discover that like countless other infants, mostly girls, each had been abandoned by their birth parents during China’s one-child policy, imposed from 1979 to 2015. Like 150,000 others, they had been adopted by American families.
Chloe (whose aunt is the filmmaker), adopted by a Jewish family in Seattle, studies Mandarin and is interested in finding “more people I could relate to and who look like me.” Lily is being raised by a single mother in Oklahoma City. As she makes plans to leave home for college, she’s grown increasingly curious about her Chinese roots. Sadie lives in Nashville; and her foster mother can trace her own family on her father’s side back to the year 900, whereas Sadie was found abandoned in a box near a busy street in Guangzhou.
The three quickly bond and travel to China, where a compassionate young woman working for a company that helps adopted children to uncover their past searches for their birth parents — with bittersweet results. Lipitz combines a look at the consequences of a ruthless policy with the coming of age of three American teens to achieve a blithe but penetrating social study.
“Found” can streamed on Netflix beginning Oct. 20. Go to www.netflix.com/title/81476857.
Wheels within wheels
Perhaps a more germane question than “Who Is Lun*na Menoh?” might be “What is ‘Who is Lun*na Menoh?’”
Jeff Mizushima’s diabolically meta confection begins with a fairly conventional profile of the very unconventional Japanese artist of the title (one interviewee describes how she wore a couch in one of Menoh’s fashion shows). This turns out to be the supposedly finished version of the film — which has taken Mizushima 10 years to shoot and edit and is now being shown to Menoh. The subject, though, hates the finished version and decides to take over the film and remake it herself. Mizushima then decides to make a movie about Menoh remaking the movie that he made about her.
Playful and profound, the film, whatever it may be, offers a uniquely entertaining exercise in postmodern self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and feminist empowerment.
“Who Is Lun*na Menoh?” can be streamed as part of the Boston Asian American Film Festival (Oct. 20-24) via the ArtsEmerson virtual platform on Oct. 24 from 7 to 10 p.m. with a Q&A with Mizushima and Menoh to follow. Go to www.baaff.org/menoh.html.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com