Tanya Tucker first hit the charts in the early 1970s when she was still a teenager, ending up at the tail end of a wave of powerful country divas like Loretta Lynn, Lynn Anderson, Dolly Parton, and Tammy Wynette singing candid songs with big Voices blared. Tucker was like her little sister — but a headstrong one who’s struggled throughout her career with substance abuse, stage fright, stormy relationships, and a stubborn desire to be more of an Elvis Presley than a Patsy Cline.
Director Kathlyn Horan’s documentary The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile isn’t a straight-forward biography of the singer. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the 2019 comeback album, While I’m Livin’, that Tucker made with one of her biggest fans: Grammy-winning pop-folk singer-songwriter Carlile , who co-produced the album with Shooter Jennings. Horan follows the recording sessions for the first third of the film and then stays tuned into what happened next as Tucker gave interviews and live performances for the first time in years and soon found himself on leaderboards and winning awards. As the film tells the story of the album, it strings together old clips and traces Tucker’s past ups and downs.
At the heart of the image is the grueling creative process that led to “While I’m Livin’,” which Jennings (son of Tuckers Outlaw Country colleague Waylon Jennings) and Carlile bill themselves as Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” or Lynn’s ” Van Lear Rose’: a late-career game-changer in which younger stars bring relevance back to a legend by taking it back to its roots. The problem? Tucker isn’t sure a traditional country record reflects who she really is.
Structurally and aesthetically, this film is fairly conventional. But what sets The Return of Tanya Tucker apart from other documentaries about aging music legends is that — unlike some stars who fight their way back into the limelight — Tucker doesn’t seem to be returning entirely on her own terms. She clearly likes Carlile but doesn’t really know her music; and her own tastes don’t necessarily match the vocal Americana ballads that Carlile and her band wrote for her.
However, Carlile sees what her heroine can’t: that with the right songs and story, Tucker can once again be part of the cultural conversation and earn the industry accolades and heartfelt recognition she’s long deserved. In the modern music business, artists can make very little money doing what they love. Instead, this deeply moving film explores a different kind of success, as a great musician struggles to ensure her idol gets proper respect – the only currency that ever counts.
“The Return of Tanya Tucker – Starring Brandi Carlile”
Rated: R, for language
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
To play: Begins October 21, AMC Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Lammle Royal, West Los Angeles
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-10-20/review-the-return-of-tanya-tucker ‘The Return of Tanya Tucker’ review: Brandi Carlile boosts her hero