Tanya Tucker had her first hit song, 1972's "Delta Dawn," when she was just 13 years old. It launched an incredible career that saw her become a country music legend. Even legends can struggle, though. Personal issues, some bad press, and a generational shift in the country scene diminished her standing, to the point where she was viewed like a museum exhibit - important, yet kind of a relic. Kathlyn Horan's superb documentary The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile follows the singer as she attempts to revitalize her career with the help of a famous fan.
That fan, as the full title suggests, is Brandi Carlile, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter. Together with fellow musician Shooter Jennings, she wants to remind the public of what an extraordinary talent Tucker is. Despite the fact that they've never met, she proposes a collaboration. The women meet in the studio, talk about Tucker's life, and craft songs from whatever comes out of those conversations. Carlile is always reverent, encouraging her idol to introspect and open up.
You'd have a hard time finding a better portrait of the creative process in making music. The Return of Tanya Tucker shows how inspiration strikes and how musicians capitalize on it. The centerpiece is a composition called "Bring My Flowers Now" that starts off as an almost glib statement from Tucker about not wanting a traditional funeral and morphs into a touching, profound meditation on life, mortality, and the desire to be appreciated while one is still living. Watching the friendship between Tucker and Carlile blossom during the writing/recording process proves unexpectedly moving, as they connect on a level neither they nor we can anticipate.
An additional arc runs throughout the documentary. Tucker knows she's seen as a legend, even if she doesn't buy into it herself. She demonstrates insecurity, worrying about whether she's singing well enough, whether her ideas are stupid, whether people will like the album, etc. With each new triumph, her confidence grows to match her incredulity. Over the course of making the record with Carlile and Jennings, she finds a reserve of belief that either wasn't there before or had faded away. We forget that even the most talented, successful people can struggle with self-worth. The film reminds us that it's a universal sensation.
If you follow country music, you might already know how well things turned out for Tucker. To say she made a comeback would be an understatement. The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile will thrill the singer's fans and develop an appreciation among viewers who don't listen to the genre. In fact, if you don't listen to country music (and I don't), you might like the picture even more, as it pushes past the cheap stereotypes to show the soul that goes into the best country songs. And boy, does Tucker ever have a ton of that soul.
out of four
The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.