SXSW 2022 Review: “The Return of Tanya Tucker” Restores a Legend

History is presented as a whirlwind at the start of “The Return of Tanya Tucker – featuring Brandi Carlile,” condensing a 40-year run in the music industry in the span of a few minutes that makes you wonder how anyone could survive it. Singing with her sister in VFW halls at nine and ascending to country superstardom by 15, Tucker’s stentorian voice could make it feel as if she was able to withstand anything, enduring a tempestuous childhood with a father eager to make her a star, blowback from an affair with Glen Campbell and a battle with substance abuse. The flurry of images are replaced by one of Tucker now, set to record her first album in 17 years and hair flaming pink, suggesting the fire never left even if her desire to actually commit anything to a record did after her parents died and when she surreptitiously sings a few bars, Brandi Carlile, who is there to produce the album with Shooter Jennings, is helpless to do anything but to fall to her knees.

Piano music accompanies much of “The Return of Tanya Tucker” rather than a country guitar and whereas the singer’s life has been no doubt messy, director Kathlyn Horan honors a true classic with an elegant biography, employing the recording sessions and the occasional prodding by Carlile to dip and out of her past, which you suspect she may be tired of talking about otherwise. Within the context of music is another story, however, and although Carlile notes Tucker has a way of making lyrics she didn’t write sound like hers, the film connects the life she’s had, with the assistance of a considerable amount of startling 16mm film from Tucker’s archives, with the music she’s making now as the memories become emotion in the songs.

As such, “The Return of Tanya Tucker” is more surprising than a typical chronological treatment, though it has a clear narrative thrust as Tucker records the album “While I’m Livin’” with the evolution of the Grammy-winning track “Bring Me My Flowers” from an afterthought she was tooling around with for a collaboration with dear friend Loretta Lynn gaining steam into the album’s major anthem, reflecting the confidence she regains along the way. Yet it is hardly is an easy process as much as singing may come as second nature to Tucker, and the growing friendship between her and Carlile, who can laugh as she recalls how Tucker initially referred to her on an errant text chain as “Who the hell is this Brandi bitch?” is truly exquisite to watch unfold, with “The Story” singer becoming a pillar of strength for the woman she idolized when she wasn’t comfortable in her own skin growing up.

Tucker may be loathe to call the album the start of a comeback, preferring the term “relaunch” when “I’ve come back so many times [the public] don’t believe it anymore,” but Horan finds that believing in herself truly is the first step to a reintroduction and when that involves a rigorous press tour with the same nagging questions from 20 years earlier and an apparatus around recording and performing that will never make sense to Tucker when it has nothing to do with the music itself, Carlile gently nudging the legend reluctantly back into the spotlight is shown for the difficult process that it is. Yet as Carlile suspects, it’s a rewarding one when it leads to those transcendent moments when Tucker sings and after leaving the stage for a tribute to Lynn, saying for it was “heaven” in those few moments when she could just sing, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

“The Return of Tanya Tucker – featuring Brandi Carlile” will screen at SXSW on March 16th at 4 pm at the Paramount Theater. It is also available virtually for SXSW Online badgeholders through March 16th at 9 am.