My knowledge of country music doesn’t extend much further beyond Dolly Parton. The name Tanya Tucker rang a bell, but before seeing this documentary, I couldn’t tell you that she was the artist behind Delta Dawn and Two Sparrows in a Hurricane. The Return of Tanya Tucker Featuring Brandi Carlile proved quite educational for a country music virgin such as myself. The film wound up being more than that, however. While Tucker is the main showcase, Brandi Carlile earns her place in the title. Kathlyn Horan’s documentary isn’t just about country music, but friendship as well.
Many music documentaries follow a formula, chronically an artist’s rise to fame to their inevitable downfall. Although The Return of Tanya Tucker explores the highs and lows, her most recent comeback takes center stage. Her latest chapter is all the more uplifting knowing Tucker’s history. Tucker was 13 years old – barely a teenager – when she recorded her first hit song. As she grew older, Tucker’s relationship with Glen Campbell overshadowed her music. Tucker would make a comeback in the 80s, producing successful music well into the early 2000s. For almost two decades, though, Tucker’s pop culture presence was sporadic at most. This is where Brandi Carlile came in.
An accomplished artist in her own right, Carlile is a longtime fan of Tucker. Along with producer Shooter Jennings, Carlile persuaded her idol to collaborate on While I’m Livin’. This would be Tucker’s 25th studio album and her first in 17 years. Tucker’s previous album, released in 2002, didn’t even crack the Top 30. That seemingly marked the beginning of the end for Tucker. The passing of her parents also took a toll on Tucker’s drive to create. Carlile helped Tucker to regain her mojo, making for a comeback story well worth documenting.
While the achieved footage from Tucker’s youth is absorbing, the most memorable scenes occur in the present day. We’ve given a first-hand look at Tucker and Carlile’s collaboration as their professional relationship evolves into a friendship. In one of the documentary’s most personal moments, the two discuss female heroes. Tucker didn’t grow up with many female artists to look up to, but Carlile singles her out as an inspiration to country singers everywhere. Carlile sincerely admires Tucker, and you can tell that the feeling is mutual. Just as Tucker helped shape Carlile as an artist, Carlile helps give Tucker the confidence to get back on stage.
Whether you never heard of Tanya Tucker before or forgot about her impact, this documentary succeeds in returning her to the spotlight. On a filmmaking level, The Return of Tanya Tucker doesn’t reach the heights of a music documentary like Summer of Soul. However, it is an inspiring story about second acts (or third acts, or fourth acts). Whichever act Tucker is on, it’s a career highlight. Her journey to the Grammys proves to be an especially stirring and overdue moment. Will Tucker and Carlile be headed to the Oscars next for Best Documentary? Either way, audiences are bound to love Tucker like they used to.