Celebrity comebacks don’t often go exactly as planned, but it helps when the planner is someone with as much of a knack for military precision and as broad a sense of the big cultural picture as a Rick Rubin or a Brandi Carlile. Rubin, of course, built Johnny Cash from a casino-playing relic back into some kind of god with the records he produced for the Man in Black in the ’90s and 2000s, and Carlile had the idea she could do something like that with her own personal heroine, Tanya Tucker, in 2019. There was at least one critical difference, though: Carlile, unlike Rubin, thought to hire a director and camera crew the day before recording began.
The end result of that foresight, “The Return of Tanya Tucker, Featuring Brandi Carlile,” documents just how well it went when Carlile and Shooter Jennings more or less coerced Tucker into letting them produce an album for her when the 60-ish singer hadn’t even been in a studio to cut new material for 17 years. There’s not much suspense in how it will turn out, with the country music veteran — who first became a star at 13 — finally winning her first Grammys. There are remarkably few serious hiccups along the way in achieving the career reclamation Carlile envisions for Tucker at the start. But any heightened sense of drama isn’t really necessary when it comes to the pleasures of spending time with two such strong musical personalities in what amounts to a documentary two-hander, fully justifying tagging the younger artist’s name onto the film’s title as an awkward but fitting addendum.
Younger generations of musicians haven’t always seen fit to pass torches back, although there have certainly been other examples in the last couple of decades, like Jack White making it his mission to re-launch Loretta Lynn. It’s easy to imagine some hesitance in that process, though: In the presence of a legend who hasn’t always looked out for her own best interests, what’s the balance between properly cowed and cracking a whip? Carlile just seems to have a natural instinct for how to push gently among the plaudits as she’s meeting her childhood role model for the first time on the first day of sessions for the “While I’m Livin’” album at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound studios.
She quickly insinuates her way into the vocal booth, where she stays with Tucker for a whole week’s worth of recording, leaving her co-producer, Shooter Jennings, to handle everything in the control room. It’s as close as anyone could come in a recording studio to having an attentive bedside manner without literally squeezing a twin mattress and headboards into the booth. But when the album is done and Tucker wants to go back in and digitally punch in a climactic high note on the single “The Wheels of Laredo,” Carlile puts her foot down: “If we ever do another album you can punch the hell out of it,” she says. But “this album is like a photograph where you can’t go back and change what you were wearing because you don’t like bell bottoms.”
This is the season for people appreciating fly-on-the-wall recording studio films, obviously, and “The Return of Tanya Tucker” is almost kind of like the anti-“Get Back” in that it documents sessions where everything that could go right does. But the doc doesn’t get dull just because things get so darn agreeable. Carlile just happens to be a very good interviewer, of Tucker, and it’s clear the “radical empathy” she advocates in her own music and career is something she practices in real life, in a way unbecoming of the narcissistic rock star profession. It’s possible that she did all the questioning she did of Tucker strictly for the cameras, knowing that it would provide the perfect opportunity for director Kathryn Horan and editor Brady Hammes to use those moments to cut to their archival finds to illustrate the subject’s backstory — which they very effectively do.
But as a producer, she has other reasons to ask Tucker about her life. One way in which “While I’m Livin’” differs from the “American Recordings” albums Rubin did with Cash is that it’s more personal, less stunt-like. Instead of getting Tucker to record iconic cover songs out of her usual wheelhouse, Carlile and bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth wrote a selection of original material based on what they knew of their subject’s life. Even in the studio, Carlile is asking Tucker about her regrets in her relationship with her late father, and then writing that into a new song, “Bring Me My Flowers,” almost on the spot. The acolyte is pressing her hero for details so Tucker can get in touch with her life emotions in the booth. Or, maybe she’s just seriously fan-girling … but it works either way.
You could wish the movie spent at least another minute or two on a side topic as fascinating as what exactly it was about Tucker that made the seemingly heteronormative star so relatable to a young lesbian discovering herself in Washington in the ’80s. Tucker comes off as such a lovably tough cookie, though, some of that may not be that tough to figure out just from the lifelong moxie alone. It’s interesting that, when Carlile asks Tucker to name her female role models, even though we know she has some (Loretta Lynn makes a cameo in the film), the elder singer can only think of Elvis Presley. She invokes him again when she describes why she gave up wearing country-music-mandated dresses early in her career: “I can’t imitate him — I can’t do songs about burnin’ love — in a dress.” That unshakable backbone is part of why, even for a documentary that gets some marquee value out of mentioning Carlile in its name, Tucker still gets her name above as well as within the title.
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