The affectionate making-of music documentary “The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile” charts the recording of Tucker’s Grammy-winning 2019 album “While I’m Livin,’ ” via fresh interviews, studio footage and archival film clips. In the film, Tucker calls the circumstances surrounding the record a “relaunch,” not a comeback. (This, despite the fact that it was the now-64-year-old singer’s first album of original material in 17 years. Her 2009 album “My Turn” featured only covers.)
“Relaunch” may be the best way to describe Tucker’s impactful return to music, after she first rocketed to success beginning at age 13 with the 1972 album “Delta Dawn,” which earned her a Grammy for most promising female vocalist. That was followed by a regular string of nominations and wins, up until the mid-1990s. In the film, Tucker attributes the hiatus following her 2002 album “Tanya,” at least partly, to grief over her father’s death in 2006 and her mother’s in 2012.
We first meet Tucker – gray hair dyed pink, her cigarette-deepened voice a rich growl – as she’s meeting the engine behind her relaunch. That’s Washington state native singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who with producer and musician Shooter Jennings was the impetus behind the 2019 album (hence the titular “featuring”).
Carlile is in the film almost as much as her idol, Tucker, as the two collaborate and day-drink together in the studio. Carlile co-wrote the Grammy-winning song “Bring My Flowers Now” with Tucker, but Carlile seems to have done much of the songcraft; Tucker started the tune years ago and never finished it, but it turns into a beauty.
Tucker’s 14-month romance in the early 1980s with singer Glen Campbell – 20-some years her senior – is touched on only glancingly, as is Tucker’s struggle with cocaine. Neither subject provides much grit. There are moments when Tucker’s unreliability threatens to derail her creative partnership with Carlile, as when it appears she might not show up in time to perform at a Loretta Lynn tribute concert. But the drama is fleeting.
Mostly “The Return” is about listening to great music getting made by two women representing two generations of country music – Carlile is 41 – who genuinely seem to respect each other, and who have obvious talent. Tucker’s first words in the film are, “Say a prayer. I need it.” But as Carlile assures Tucker at the end of the film, the greatness of what they were working on together was never really in doubt – not for one second.
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