Anyone who has seen enough music documentaries probably has a pretty good idea of what The Return of Tanya Tucker would be before going in — docs that follow still living figures too often come across like softball hagiographies rather than portraits of living, breathing, complex humans. But much to its credit, that’s not what this film is at all, as director Kathlyn Horan eschews the typical talking head aesthetic for a fly-on-the-wall look at Tucker’s 2019 comeback album, While I’m Livin’, which was her first original album since 2002.
Tucker, a country music giant who all but disappeared from the music industry for nearly two decades, is an undeniably fascinating figure, and while The Return of Tanya Tucker does explore the hardships that led to her stepping back from public life, it’s primary focus is on the recording of While I’m Livin’ with Brandi Carlile, whose advocacy helped sell the album and return Tucker to country music stardom. The resulting collaboration is riveting stuff to behold — Tucker’s raspy twang sounds careworn but more soulful than ever, and her ability to communicate through music shines in even the most casual of conversations.
It’s precisely that sense of intimacy that really defines the film, allowing the audience to sit in on these conversations and recording sessions to not only better understand the process, but the artist herself. And while the film misses a few opportunities to dig deeper into the hardships that Tucker has faced over the course of her career and which grafted onto her the “bad girl” image that has been ever-present to her public persona, the lack of traditional interviews gives the film a greater sense of verisimilitude. Here we have a beloved star who was essentially discarded by the industry, one she’s been a part of since she was a child, making a grand return with the help of an artist she helped inspire. It’s a compelling story both narratively and emotionally, and Horan wisely lets it speak for itself, allowing viewers to casually occupy the film’s charged space.
To that end, Return’s lack of formality feels purposeful and truthful, an affecting conduit that allows the audience to feel like a participant in Tucker’s comeback story. But one need not be familiar with Tucker or her career to understand what an achievement it is for a former child star who has been through as much as she has to have turned out so seemingly well-adjusted, and remained so beloved by a fanbase in spite of industry indifference. The Return of Tanya Tucker’s title, then, is something of an undersell: this isn’t just another “making of” music doc, but rather a moving portrait of an artist reborn.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2022 — Dispatch 2.