High-profile music producer Dave Cobb is currently up for several Grammys for his working with two longtime clients who have a couple of the biggest and best voices in the business: Brandi Carlile and Chris Stapleton. For a recent film project, he was tasked with replicating the vintage ’70s/’80s song catalog of another belter, albeit a somewhat less celebrated one: the late televangelist-diva Tammy Faye Bakker.
As might be expected, after having worked on “Eyes of Tammy Faye” — the film that debuted in theaters in November and just made its bow to a wider audience on HBO Max — Cobb has nothing but the highest praise for Jessica Chastain, who thoroughly inhabited Bakker as a vocal stylist for more than a half-dozen musical performances. But you won’t find him offering Bakker herself much less effusive praise than he would a Carlile or Stapleton. And the potential for campiness didn’t enter into his mind any more than it did the leading lady’s.
Bakker “had a pretty incredible range— I mean, she really did,” says Cobb. “She was a stylized singer, for sure. But she had the thing that I think connected with people, which is the heart she had. And when Tammy was singing ‘Don’t Give Up on a Miracle,’ she believed every word she was singing, and I think that is rare in any artist, to be able to connect like that to the audience.”
When the actress came into the studio to pre-record the vocals for the film, being the admirer of Bakker that Chastain, she also had a lot of heart going or her … along with maybe a bit of booze. Chastain has openly professed that she was nervous enough about singing for the film that she needed a little liquid reinforcement to get through at least the first round. Cobb laughs and seems reluctant to offer too much confirmation of Chastain’s methodology: “Well, I’ll let her tell that story. But I think she may have put a little Maker’s Mark in her tea.”
She quickly nailed it, which perhaps isn’t surprising given the 10 years she’d spent preparing for the impersonation. Cobb’s immersion in Tammy Faye goes back much further than that, so he was equipped to be a good judge of how how successful the leading lady’s spiked channeling was going.
“I’m from Georgia, and my grandparents on both sides are Pentecostal,” says Cobb. “And one of my grandmothers always had ‘PTL’ on TV, nonstop, and she had all Tammy Faye’s records. I mean, she actually even joined the membership where for a certain amount of money you could stay anytime you wanted at Heritage USA” — i.e., the pyramid scheme that ultimately led to husband Jim Bakker’s downfall, along with a sex scandal. “So I was very, very familiar with the music and with the Bakkers, and when I heard about the film, I was fascinated because it’s something that I just always had around, growing up.”
Chastain and music supervisor John Houlihan — whom Cobb says “did a lot of the heavy lifting” on the project — had already picked the songs from Bakker’s catalog by the time Cobb got a nudge from CAA and came onto the project. But he relished the chance to recreate records that represented a bigger wall of sound than anything he’d quite done before.
“It was really unbelievable to hear these songs again,” Cobb says. “I mean, I can’t imagine a more decadent production ever done.” He means that in the most flattering way possible. “There’s choir, strings, horns, a full band, huge background singer accompaniments — it’s the kitchen sink. I’ve worked with all those things to various degrees on records, but never doing all of it on one song. The Tammy Faye productions were everything, all the time. It must’ve been a fun time when they recorded the stuff originally. I mean, I know when we recorded, there were probably 30 or 40 people playing on each song, for a lot of it. So it’s amazing that they were able to do that, budgetarily, at that time.”
Just think of it as Cobb’s grandmother’s contributions at work.
Cobb gives a lot of credit to the producer whose work he was recreating at times — Gary S. Paxton, who left a career in secular music (as the screenplay notes, he was famous for “Monster Mash”) to go into Christian pop in the mid-’70s, recording his own records as well as becoming Bakker’s musical confidante. (Paxton is played in the film by Mark Wystrach, lead singer for the country band Midland, whose singing voice is briefly heard on the soundtrack as well.)
“Gary Paxton is an incredibly cerebral, masterful key-change writer who writes these incredibly intricate parts. When you have horn sections that are doing all this crazy stuff and string sections that are doing all this crazy stuff, and the backgrounds are doing stuff around that, and then the band itself, I mean, what a mastermind of a brain. I can’t imagine being that smart, composing like he did.
“I normally play guitar on lots of records, but some of the stuff was way over my head, so I brought in some people like Charlie (Worsham) who could handle the chart. I definitely had to bring in ringers to be able to climb that hill.” He used other A-team players, as well, like “Fred Mandel, one of my heroes, who played on ‘The Wall’ and with Elton John and Queen. Cutting ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic'” (for the climactic scene of the film), “he came in and played some keys and we kind of responded to her vocal on that and cut that on the spot.”
Chastain and Cobb have made their first session sound almost like a suspense movie. She knew of his work and has said she was cowed at the thought of working with him, and for his part, “I was terrified to work with her, being a fan and knowing how gifted she is. It’s scary shoes to step into, being in a room with somebody who’s talented.” But he says he had no idea she felt so intimidated, and in any case, he sensed she was at ease “once she realized how relaxed it was and that it wasn’t some huge production. Well, it was a big production, musically” — when the band and orchestra recorded separately — but “ss far as the environment that we were recording the vocal in, it just felt like buddies in a room together, hanging out. I immediately felt like she was just really good people, and it was a really good vibe.”
As Chastain has told the story, they completed the first day’s recording and felt good about it… and the next day in the studio, Cobb told her to take the vocals up from a 10 to a 12, the way Tammy Faye would have. Cobb says he didn’t force her anywhere she didn’t want to go. “I just saw her confidence growing. I think by the end of the day, she knew she was up for a new challenge, and I think in really pushing her, she was right there and was able to better anything she’d done the first day. We had three days to do vocals, but the majority were recorded in a day and a half. The second night is when maybe we hit the stride and upped the keys and just went boom, boom, boom and knocked it all out. It was pretty mind-blowing.
“Not only did she have to sing these really kind of operatic parts, but she had to nail Tammy Faye’s accent and Tammy Faye’s mannerisms. And I think she just really shines hugely in the music on this. What she does is much harder than what we had to do in the studio — not only was she in the movie as Tammy Faye, not only was she having to sing, but she has a production company” responsible for the film, “so she had a lot going on. But she walked in extremely in a real positive headspace and as really just a hard worker going the extra mile to get the vocals perfect. But not only did she have such a great disposition, she had really huge respect for Tammy Faye — ou could just tell she appreciated the person. And when she was singing, not only was she was trying to nail the notes, but she really tried to nail the heart of Tammy, and that was what made it special.”
The end credits offer two grace notes, one comic and one not. There’s a “Puppet Medley” over the end of the film that Cobb says was a gas to do with Chastain. “Every character that Tammy Faye did, it was amazing to see her animate,” says Cobb, who says it really felt “like you’re having conversations with multiple characters.”
But before that, there’s another end-credits song, one that isn’t performed. It was “a thousand percent” Chastain’s idea to have Tammy Faye’s daughter, Tammy Sue Baker, sing a reprise. “We did that all virtually at that point during COVID, but the connection between Jessica and Tammy Sue was really special, seeing that moment and how much she really cared for Tammy Faye. It was a beautiful marriage to see those two work together.”
But one of his favorites, like much of the audience’s, was the disco track: “;Jesus, Keep Taking Me Higher’ — that was such a fun track to record. It just feels like nothing could go wrong in that song. It’s just pure happiness.”