Remember when people read novels? That might seem like an inane statement to those seeking out this review or the story of Amy Tan, but it’s hard to remember the last time a novel dominated the conversation outside the now seemingly narrowed world of people who regularly read fiction. The documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” waxes nostalgic for that time, immersing us in the author’s meteoric success with “The Joy Luck Club” in 1989 as a blockbuster work of fiction, while also showing how that level of success and her self-informed pressure to deliver a massive followup, plagued her on a personal level. As the final film from James Redford (son of Robert Redford), this PBS “American Masters” entry is a riveting portrait of the artist, exceptionally crafted and entertaining enough even for those unfamiliar with Tan’s groundbreaking contributions to Asian American literature.
For one, Amy Tan is just cool. Her severe bangs, chic style, and erudition that borders on ASMR-inducing make for the kind of literary character you can spot from miles away. Even in archival photos in this documentary, she makes smoking a cigarette suddenly look fashionable again. But she also, now 68 and more than 30 years away from the phenomenon of “The Joy Luck Club,” still carries with her a pathos held over from her complicated upbringing among immigrant Chinese parents who definitely wanted her and her siblings to conform to American values, forms of dress, and even ways of speaking.
Also taking centerstage in this doc is Tan’s relationship with her mother Daisy, who brought with her to America baggage from a sordid first marriage, and then later died after a battle with Alzheimer’s that has made its way into Tan’s work. Passages from Tan’s 2017 memoir “Where the Past Begins,” dictated through narration by the author herself, are woven into the film, offering candid glimpses into her childhood and into what led her to become an author: “My childhood with its topsy-turvy emotions has in fact been a reason to write. I can lay it out squarely on the page and see what it was. I can understand what it was and see the patterns… But the mess will always be there.”
Indeed, there is darkness that sneaks into Tan’s life story, including her own struggle with Lyme disease and her recovery, and her self-doubt after the success of “The Joy Luck Club” turned the novel into a movie directed by Wayne Wang in 1993 that became a beacon for Asian American audiences looking for representation in the multiplexes. But that phenomenon brought the added onus for Tan of being a spokesperson for her generation. “I didn’t seek to be a politician. I didn’t seek to be a representative of a whole community. I was just writing stories,” she says. But her celebrity forced her to take on the position of serving as a mouthpiece for Asian American identity, and she had to go up against literary critics that accused her of Orientalist tropes and white racist fakery — criticisms that seem just baffling now, especially when coming from white writers.
Testimonies from Tan’s editor and mentor Molly Giles, as well as luminaries like “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan and Chilean writer Isabel Allende, another literary figure who broke barriers for representation, exemplify how Tan is beloved. But to break the film out of simply being a talking heads affair, there are also whimsical animations, tableaux vivant that illustrate key chapters in Tan’s life without ever feeling precious. Even Tan’s own sketches, as she’s recently begun to foray in nature journaling, make their way into the film.
After “Joy Luck Club” and despite the attention it brought her, Tan still managed to turn out a raft of bestselling novels: “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” “Saving Fish from Drowning,” and “The Valley of Amazement” among them. But for literary fans, the greatest treat of this deep dive is footage of Tan performing as the lead singer of the band the Rock Bottom Remainders, a touring music group comprised of other bestselling authors like Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. Seeing her come loose, smoking a cigarette onstage and rocking out, shows us a completely different side of this introspective author, and helps embolden the fact that she’s been a rebel all along.
The PBS American Masters documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” premieres on PBS at 9 p.m. on May 3 (check local listings).