In August, Brandi Carlile had a viral moment when footage was released from Joni Mitchell’s magical performance at the Newport Folk Festival, which Carlile had organized. As Mitchell sang with an age-defying grace and power, Carlile sat a few feet away, playing guitar and beaming in a mixture of pride and awe.
Two months later, you can see a variation on that same look in “The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile,” a documentary that shows how Carlile has helped bring back more of her idols than just Mitchell. The film, by Kathryn Horan, follows the recording of “While I’m Livin’,” the 2019 album that marked the first collection of new material in 17 years for the fiery country singer who first hit the country charts at the age of 14.
Even when she was barely into her teens, Tucker was a powerhouse with a love for rock ‘n’ roll (it’s no coincidence that she named her daughter Presley) and a rebellious streak that has been known to turn self-destructive at times. The journey depicted in “The Return of Tanya Tucker” was a reclamation project of sorts for someone who’s not always sure she wants to be reclaimed, and the film does an affectionate job of acknowledging but tiptoeing around the troubles and rejoicing in the glorious spirit of an artist in her 60s who has survived the obstacles that she and others have put in her way.
The film has plenty of moments where we watch Carlile talk about Tucker with a worried frown, but its heart is in those times when Tanya opens her mouth to sing and Brandi shakes her head or pounds the mixing board or drops to her knees in wonder. It’s largely a movie to celebrate Tucker, though it draws its strength from at least acknowledging that she can be a hard person to celebrate; the film would like to be triumphant, but Tucker resists that and makes it funkier, more complicated and more interesting.
The spine of “The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile” lies in the vérité scenes of Tucker making the album with Carlile and Shooter Jennings (who co-produced “While I’m Livin’” but gets considerably less screen time). In fly-on-the-wall conversations, Tucker seems nervous about the whole enterprise, given Nashville’s less-than-wholehearted embrace of a career that was often too stubbornly individualistic, and too rock ‘n’ roll, for Music City’s tastes. Eyeing her own comeback warily, Tucker comments, “I’ve come back so much they don’t believe it no more.”
But her new friend Brandi believes it and is determined to make it happen – and once Tanya opens her mouth and sings the first few lines of “High Ridin’ Horses” before she even sets foot inside the recording studio, it’s clear that her voice has the grit and soul to deliver an album worth welcoming back. To help make that happen, Carlile writes new songs that draw from Tucker’s personal history, and then coaxes performances out of a legend whose jitters and brash unpredictability always threaten to torpedo the project.
Carlile spends a lot of time pumping Tucker up and praising her, which is endearing but also odd at times: The biographical sections of the film, which come in chunks between the new studio footage, tend to skirt the problematic sections of Tucker’s life rather than delving into them too deeply. (Her stormy relationship with the much-older Glen Campbell gets minimal attention.) The film, in a way, is as protective of Tucker as Carlile is, without quite getting into the reasons why she needs such constant support.
Still, Tucker’s frailties and stubbornness come out in bits and pieces, in offhand comments (“I hate having to be disciplined about anything”) and in the wary way in which everyone approaches her. And the heart of “The Return of Tanya Tucker” comes when she opens her mouth and sings her new songs, taking the fire of her teenage years and imbuing it with decades of hard lessons learned. “While I’m Livin’” was a landmark album; with songs like the gently wrenching “Bring My Flowers Now,” started by Tucker and finished by Carlile, it would have been great even if it hadn’t won her a couple of Grammys and brought her back in both country and alternative circles. If “The Return of Tanya Tucker” would rather celebrate the accomplishment than explore the turmoil that came before, Tanya Tucker has clearly earned this level of respect and celebration.
“The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile” opens in theaters on Oct. 21 from Sony Pictures Classics.