Documentary Review: Brandi Carlile engineers “The Return of Tanya Tucker”

“The Return of Tanya Tucker” isn’t a documentary for people who don’t like triumphant comeback stories. If you can’t get choked-up at “I survived fame and its excesses and lived-to-tell-the-tale” stories, just mosey along.

And if you think Tanya Tucker lost that “outlaw” label and turns all soft and cuddly in her dotage in this film about her recording her first LP of new music in over a decade, you’re missing the tequila and grapefruit juice shooters she’s doing between takes, pardner.

The first image in Kathlyn Horan’s documentary is Tucker, who turned 64 Oct. 10, in close-up, her face showing all the miles of decades of hard living, her white hair splashed with pink and her voice seasoned with more whisky — or tequila — and cigarettes that one can count. That’s a promise that this upbeat and sentimental film makes about honesty, a promise that it keeps.

Maybe Horan and her on-camera alter ego, singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile won’t dig deep into the tabloid years, the “wild child” behavior and all that. But this will be a candid portrait of a singer long gone from the spotlight being yanked back into it by her biggest fans.

They would be Carlile, famous for “The Joke,” from her four-Grammy Award-winning album “By the Way, I Forgive You” and her producer, Shooter Jennings. The two of them go all fangirl/fanboy over Tucker when they meet her in the film, bringing her back into the studio for an album that would quickly be heralded as Tucker’s “comeback.”

The idea, Carlile tells “TT” and us in the Sunset Sounds studio in LA, is to give Tucker the same treatment producer Rick Rubin gave Johnny Cash for his iconic “American Recordings” LP. Do a record that gives a legend her due, in other words.

Horan’s film — she’s also done documentaries on women in prison and The Indigo Girls — blends the biography of a country music star who has been on stage, on TV and in the limelight since she was 13, with footage of pre-pandemic efforts to make the album “While I’m Still Livin'” of new Carlile-and-Co. penned songs, with one — “Bring My Flowers Now,”– co-written by Tucker and Carlile.

We see snippets of scores of TV appearances, home movies and TV interviews that recount Tucker’s rise from trailer park poverty in Wilcox, Arizona, to her “discovery” by Mel Tillis, that heartbreaking career-defining hit (“Delta Dawn”) and all that came afterward, much of it lived in the public eye. I counted a couple of different “60 Minutes” profiles along with a nervous appearance on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show in the cavalcade of TV chats detailing her “life of the party” years, battling depression, dating many much older country music stars (most famously Glen Campbell).

“I sowed my wild oats” like anybody else, Tucker admits. But ” did it on the cover of the (National) EN-quirer!”

The magic here is seeing an established star like Carlile go full-blown fangirl on her idol. She flatters “TT,” gushes, and Tucker takes to her in an instant. Carlile analyzes Tucker’s voice, makes a few comparisons to other Women of Country, and they launch into an impromptu cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” and trade verses of a song Carlile suggests Tanya record. Carlile gently directs Tucker towards the sort of LP she think will make a mark, joins her in the recording booth simply for encouragement and swaps tequila shooters with her to keep the good vibes going.

“I’ve had a f—-g HEADache every day I’ve been in here with you,” Carlile laughs. Then she relates how for a girl growing up, uncertain of her sexuality and her place in the world, Tucker was an inspiration.

“Tanya was TOUGH.”

The whole affair is just delightful. Even the hint of a little of Tucker going astray and sabotaging herself, a big subtext of the Keith Richards/Chuck Berry doc “Hail Hail, Rock’n Roll,” is just that — a hint. There’s little conflict here, just good times, good tunes and a finale that you won’t see coming if you don’t remember what happened with this record. I interviewed Tucker 20 years ago when she was still touring but had given up on recording, and had lost track of her since.

But even if you do know how this story ends, it’s beautifully touching seeing and hearing somebody who’s been through the fame, celebrity and cocaine wringer, just grateful at the victory lap her biggest fan provides for her.

Rating: R for (profanity)

Cast: Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings

Credits: Scripted and directed by Kathlyn Horan. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:48

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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