• Jared Huizenga

‘The Return of Tanya Tucker’: An Unexpectedly Moving Music Doc

For reasons beyond my comprehension, the music documentaries I like most are often about musicians whose music I’m sort of indifferent toward – ‘Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,’ ‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ and ‘20 Feet from Stardom’ among them.


So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Sony Pictures Classics’ ‘The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile’ is the latest music-centric documentary to follow that pattern.

 

Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile in the Sony Pictures Classics documentary ‘The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile.’ (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.)

 

Featuring the aforementioned artists, along with Shooter Jennings, the film details the recording of Tucker’s critically acclaimed 2019 comeback album ‘While I'm Livin’.’


Without an album of original material in 17 years, Tucker and her 6+ decade career (she debuted in 1972 at the age of 13) sort of faded into the background of country music history. While other influential country artists received late career revivals (Johnny Cash) and undying universal praise (Loretta Lynn), Tucker didn’t seem to have received the same treatment … at least prior to this album.


While ‘Return …’ focuses a lot on the writing and recording process, a fair amount of time is devoted to Tucker’s career, early life, and what makes her tick. You see a lot of subtle insecurities surface, despite her best efforts to hide them behind colorful storytelling and bravado.


As such, getting Tucker to sign on and truly believe in the project took a lot of coaxing from producers Carlile, who grew up a huge fan, and Jennings. And even then, there were times it didn’t seem like Tucker wanted or was able to get out of her own way long enough to make it happen. Despite the ups and downs, the record was made and it was successful; I suspect there’d be no documentary if it weren’t.


Truth be told, I know Carlile and Jennings by name only; I can’t name a song either of them are responsible for. I thought I knew Tucker a little more, but after pressing play on this screener, I soon realized that I had confused her for Crystal Gayle.


Perhaps it was that ignorance that allowed me to enjoy this film as much as I did. I had no preconceived notions about who any of these people are, no expectations, no idea of their motivations … I was able to take everything at surface level and be consumed by the story and its ups and downs.

 

Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile in the Sony Pictures Classics documentary ‘The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile.’ (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.)

 

There are moments of unbridled joy, often when Carlile kicks back and watches one of her idols do what she does best. There are moments of aggravation, often when Tucker seems to be doing everything possible to ruin this opportunity to revive her career. And there genuinely moving moments, like when Tucker speaks with one of her friends/idols and when they play the album for the first time for friends and family.


Coming in at 108 minutes, ‘Return …’ does drag at times, often in the first act, but by the time it crescendos, you realize those momentary slogs all worked for that payoff. The film isn’t good enough to make me run out and listen to the record, or any of their work for that matter, but if you’re a fan of Tucker, Carlile, country music, or music documentaries, there’s more than enough here to make it more than worth the time investment.


★★★★ of ★★★★★