South by Southwest always has a lot of music documentaries in the film festival. But rarely does one come along as good as “The Return of Tanya Tucker — Featuring Brandi Carlile.”
Tucker, who shot to fame on the country charts when she was only 13 with “Delta Dawn,” had not been in a studio to record new material for 17 years when up-and-coming country star Brandi Carlile coaxed her back and promised to produce a new album in 2019.
The years, of course, have taken a toll on Tucker, who says she lost her mojo after her parents died. She’s still smoking and imbibing, with tequila mixed with ruby red grapefruit being her drink of choice. But Carlile keeps nudging Tucker along with an unusual amount of empathy and determination.
Carlile considers Tucker to be her idol, the one she admired most growing up. And she readily admits that she wonders why “I forgot about Tanya Tucker, and so many others had forgotten.” So Carlile sets out to remedy that.
The flattering works, although Tucker seems to doubt that she can make a comeback. Carlile, however, persists. She introduces Tucker to her wife and daughter, brings in producer Shooter Jennings and rents a Los Angeles studio to bring Tucker back to creative life.
Impressively, Carlile also had the foresight to hire a movie crew the day before recording began.
The setup for the recordings is somewhat unusual. Carlile sits beside Tucker in the vocal booth, giving both moral and creative support to her idol. Carlile often exclaims when Tucker hits a perfect note, and Tucker smiles and demurs, then takes another drink for courage.
In between the recording sessions, director Kathryn Horman and editor Brady Hammes cut to clips from Tucker’s early life, showing her with her father and mother and tracking her rise to country stardom.
When Carlile confesses her idolatry of Tucker, she asks Tucker who her female idols were. And Tucker says she didn’t really have any idols besides Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But we know that’s not true — that she and Loretta Lynn have remained friends and that Lynn regularly calls Tucker to check up on her.
It’s in such moments that the movie cuts to show Tucker forgoing a dress and wearing glittery pantsuits just like Elvis. And we also see news clippings about her heavy partying and loving, especially the long relationship with Glen Campbell, who was 20 years her senior.
But these moments also spawn creativity, especially when Carlile asks Tucker about her regrets about her relationship with her parents, and in particular her father. To which Tucker responds with a few lines she has been writing that turn into the basis for a new song, “Bring My Flowers Now,” which basically argues that we need to show love before we die, not afterward.
It really is a remarkable moment, when Carlile coaxes Tucker’s material into a new song, which went on to win the Grammy Award for best country song later that year.
There’s also a special moment when Tucker has been asked to sing in Nashville for Loretta Lynn’s Birthday Concert. Carlile is nervous that Tucker won’t be able to pull off a live performance, and Tucker has some nerves, too. Carlile recalls being at a party with Miranda Lambert and expressing worries about the upcoming event. And Carlile says that Lambert just looked at her, stirred a cocktail, and said, “Tanya is fucking crazy. Just deal with it,” or something to that effect. But in the end, Tucker turns the tables and calms down Carlile before the performance.
And, of course, Tucker sings “Bring My Flowers Now” as Lynn blows kisses from the audience. Talk about a moment!
“The Return of Tanya Tucker” has already had its SXSW premiere. But its biggest screening at the festival is yet to come. It will be showing at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 16, at the Paramount Theatre — the largest venue available for SXSW films. This is one screening you will not want to miss.