Review: Outlaw country star gets the respect she deserves in ‘The Return of Tanya Tucker’

A woman with her arm around an older woman who has dyed pink hair.
Sony Pictures Classics
(Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile in the documentary “The Return of Tanya Tucker - Featuring Brandi Carlile.”)

Tanya Tucker first hit the charts in the early 1970s while still a teenager, arriving at the tail end of a wave of powerhouse country divas, such as Loretta Lynn, Lynn Anderson, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, who belted out honest songs with big voices. Tucker was like their kid sister — but a wayward one, who over the course of her career struggled with substance abuse, stage fright, tempestuous relationships and a stubborn desire to be more of an Elvis Presley than a Patsy Cline.

Director Kathlyn Horan’s documentary “The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile” isn’t a straightforward biography of the singer. As the title implies, it’s mostly about the 2019 comeback album “While I’m Livin’” that Tucker made with one of her biggest fans: Grammy-winning pop-folk singer-songwriter Carlile, who co-produced the record with Shooter Jennings. Horan follows the recording sessions in the movie’s first third, then sticks around for what happened next, as Tucker did interviews and live performances for the first time in years, and soon found herself landing on best-of lists and winning awards. In between telling the story of the album, the film strings together old clips, tracking Tucker’s past ups and downs.

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The heart of the picture is the grinding creative process that led to “While I’m Livin’,” which Jennings (the son of Tucker’s outlaw country peer Waylon Jennings) and Carlile envision as being like Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” or Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose”: a late-career game-changer, in which younger stars make a legend relevant again by taking them back to their roots. The problem? Tucker isn’t sure a trad country record reflects who she really is.

In terms of structure and aesthetics, this film is fairly conventional. But what sets “The Return of Tanya Tucker” apart from other documentaries about aging musical legends is that Tucker — unlike some stars fighting their way back into the spotlight — appears to be coming back not entirely on her own terms. She clearly likes Carlile but doesn’t really know her music; and her own tastes don’t necessarily run toward the vocal-forward Americana ballads Carlile and her band wrote for her.

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Carlile, though, sees what her hero can’t: that with the right songs and right story, Tucker can be part of the cultural conversation again, garnering the industry accolades and heartfelt appreciations she’s long deserved. In the modern music business, there’s very little money to be made by artists doing what they love. So instead, this profoundly moving movie covers a different kind of success, as a great musician takes pains to make sure her idol receives some proper respect — the only currency that always matters.

'The Return of Tanya Tucker — Featuring Brandi Carlile'

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 21, AMC Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles