The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile
(USA, 108 min.)
Dir. Kathlyn Horan
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian premiere)
For a period of the early 1970s, Tanya Tucker helped define country music. At thirteen years old, she was announced as the new shiny thing. Her clear voice, bright smile, and golden locks were perfect for an industry that would soon shift further towards the visual image of a star over the downhome notions of authenticity that had come mere decades before.
Tucker had massive hits on both the country and pop charts. (Her cover of “Delta Dawn” preceded Helen Reddy’s by a year.) Her light drawl, accessible nature, and smoothed-out Nashville production found enormous success from both the country music purists as well as new fans for the genre.
The road was a bumpy one, and her relationship with a much older Glen Campbell – himself a legendary talent whose legacy is even now under appreciated save for those who trace him from his studio work through to his own hit records – provided tabloids with plenty of fodder. In cocaine-fueled times, Tucker was branded as a problem, and while hits kept coming, there was a growing sense of descent.
Eventually, Tucker stepped away from the spotlight, spending over a decade away from the public eye. That is until Brandi Carlile, herself both a fan of Tucker’s as well as one of the most important and influential Americana artists working today, coaxed Tanya out of retirement for a project reminiscent of what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash with the iconic “American Recordings.” The result is the record “While I’m Livin’,” and the companion film The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile that illustrates the process that brought it to life.
Working with producer Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon and a famous behind-the-scenes artist in his own right, we see Carlile navigating Tucker’s mercurial moods to draw from the artist performances that are raw yet in keeping with the song selection. Tucker’s voice is now gravelly and low, carved out by years of booze and cigarettes into a new instrument compared to her early career. While the wrinkles on Tucker’s face have been studiously erased through procedures, her voice illustrates the experience she’s lived, a testament to all that she’s accomplished and the journeys, not always positive ones, that she’s traveled.
The highlight on the record is “Bring My Flowers Now,” based on a melody and lyric fragment from Tucker that ascribed in this film to conversations Carlile regularly has with Tanya. Here Carlile takes the song into the required directions, and with credit shared by her own regular collaborators, the twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, we witness it coming together to something that equals anything from the prime of Tucker’s discography.
The film documents this process well, showing some of the less charitable aspects of Tucker’s behaviour and personality, but for the most part being an unabashed celebration of the woman and a companion piece to the record. Carlile’s patience is tested but never to the breaking point, and while many seem to be walking on eggshells to make sure the momentum isn’t lost, it’s undeniable that the result is a welcome return buttressed by sympathetic fans willing to show Tanya in the absolute best light possible
The Return of Tanya Tucker is the story of a survivor, a talent given her long-overdue recognition as an artist rather than merely a celebrity. The film serves well to both contextualize this return but also show the challenges that were overcome in its making, highlighting Carlile in particular for both her musical and psychological assistance. Given that Carlile has recently coaxed the likes of Joni Mitchell back to the stage to enormous celebration, this may be a particular part of her own legacy as someone able to reignite flames while there is still time for them to burn.