Though Nashville wasn’t the first film with a huge cast and a meandering narrative made by Robert Altman — step forward 1970 satirical comedy M*A*S*H — it was perhaps inevitable that he would return to this type of structure sooner rather than later, given the possibilities it offered. In this, his 12th film, Altman combines his distinctive ‘soap opera’ approach, concentrating on the lives and loves of a large number of residents of and visitors to Music City, with a disgruntled ‘state of the nation’ political commentary, much of it delivered via the loudspeaker of an unseen presidential candidate called Hal Phillip Walker. Made as the US approached its bicentennial, released a week after Independence Day, Nashville has been described by the critic Phillip French as ‘a barbed-wire birthday card’ and it stands as one of the director’s best works.
Initially Altman had been approached about making a different film in Nashville. Though he wasn’t interested in that particular project, he became fascinated by the location, and decided to make his own feature set in the city. He sent writer Joan Tewkesbury, a collaborator on his earlier films McCabe & Mrs Miller and Thieves Like Us, to observe the area, as well its music scene and its citizens, and her diary formed the basis of Nashville‘s screenplay, with various events she witnessed incorporated into the final story. Tewkesbury even went as far as writing an unflattering version of herself into the film: the irritating, pushy English reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), purportedly working on behalf of the BBC.
Featuring Altman’s typically-unclear overlapping dialogue and reliant on improvisation, the focus of Nashville is mainly on the music industry: a significant number of cast members play professional musicians, fans, those connected to the music industry or wannabes on the lookout for a big break. During the film’s five day period, which covers the run-up to a benefit concert being held to raise Walker’s profile, the characters cross paths with one other at a variety of locations: in bars, in concert venues, after a freeway pileup, at a hospital, at an airport, etc. They sleep with one another, argue with one another, reconcile, debate, converse and perform. They’re all introduced swiftly at the beginning, and though initially this is slightly confusing – particularly as some inevitably make a stronger impression than others – the film settles down and Altman spends plenty of time developing most of them to a satisfying extent. All have one major or minor goal, at the very least, which they spend most of the film trying to attain.
We start with a couple of scenes set in recording studios. A cantankerous and mean country star named Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) sings an overblown patriotic number, built around the blustery refrain ‘we must be doing something right to last 200 years’. Altman places the song directly after the film’s opening credits, over which we first hear Walker’s negative pronouncements about a variety of modern American problems and the powers to the northeast in Washington, DC. Also present in the studio are Opal, Haven’s sozzled wife Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), son Bud (Dave Peel) and white gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin). Shortly thereafter the majority of the rest of the characters are introduced as another famous singer named Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) touches down at Nashville International Airport; we meet her overprotective husband and manager Barnett (Allen Garfield), Linnea’s husband and philandering lawyer Del (Ned Beatty), groupie ‘L.A.’ Joan (Shelley Duvall) and a dysfunctional folk trio called Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Mary (Cristina Raines) and Tom (Keith Carradine), among others. There are several more famous faces among the cast, including Scott Glenn as a Vietnam War veteran and a young Jeff Goldblum, who plays a mysterious connecting figure riding around town on a low-slung, three wheel motorbike. Meanwhile, in a self-referencing move, Altman also cast Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves — celebrities passing through the city.
Naturally country music features heavily, and performances take up about an hour of the 160 minute running time. Altman decided against using real musicians for the film, a move that angered many involved in the country scene of the day, but the brave decision to allow the actors to perform (and in some cases write) the songs in the film works well; Carradine picked up the Oscar for Best Original Song the following year for his composition ‘I’m Easy’, while Pauline Kael astutely pointed out that the lyrics of the songs often reflect what is happening in the lives of the characters, another auteurist stroke that Altman used throughout his career.
The angry minority of Nashville’s major artists felt that the film ridiculed their talent and sincerity, though time has muted that outcry and Altman’s film is apparently now viewed with affection (the soundtrack, for example, regularly gets covered by younger Nashville-associated acts). Their concerns are not without foundation, and it’s likely that several felt the negative aspects of many of the characters were a little too close for comfort. Haven Hamilton, for example, is supposedly a composite of Porter Wagoner and Hank Snow, another singer named Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) brings to mind Charley Pride, Barbara Jean is based on Loretta Lynn, while feuding folk trio Bill, Mary and Tom are obviously a fictional incarnation of Peter, Paul and Mary (though, confusingly, Kris Kristofferson was the inspiration for Carradine’s Tom). For all the complaints, though, the musicians in Nashville are generally more sympathetic than the film’s numerous industry sharks, groupies and hangers on.
The performances during the film are far from perfect: a lot of the singing is off-key, and it’s hard to imagine for example that Henry Gibson would receive such rapturous applause from the Grand Ole Opry crowd in real life; Nashville’s concert footage includes ‘normal’ members of the public rather than extras, many of whom look completely nonplussed or bemused by the performances of the fictional stars. However there is a certain charm to such scenes, and rather amusingly the quality of some of the wannabe characters, such as the tone deaf Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), isn’t actually much worse than the film’s supposed professionals. Altman makes a few similar jokes at the industry’s expense and the film ends with the suggestion that if you want to make it in this town luck and circumstance are just as important – perhaps more so – than talent.
While to an extent it is about the entertainment business, the film reserves much of its criticism for several aspects of modern American society, in keeping with many of Altman’s films. It was written and made in the direct aftermath of Watergate and Altman’s underlying message is perhaps best summed up by the long finale, the Walker rally that takes place at the city’s Parthenon (built 100 years earlier in recognition of America’s centenary): here politics, violence and the Vietnam War suddenly collide in a scene played out in front of a giant Stars n’ Stripes that eerily foreshadows the murder of John Lennon. After a gun is fired from the crowd a shocked the affronted Hamilton blurts out ‘This isn’t Dallas!’ to the stunned onlookers, indicating that the long hangover from the Kennedy assassination wasn’t over in 1975. Altman caustically ends with wannabe singer Winifred (Barbara Harris) performing the repetitive gospel number ‘It Don’t Worry Me’, as if to say ‘you can be distracted by entertainment, it can provide a temporary thrill away from the real issues of the day, but you can’t look the other way forever’.
In Nashville the crossing of paths feels a little too contrived on occasions – it’s a stylistic device that feels more natural in the director’s later work, particularly the magnificent Short Cuts, where Altman opted for smaller groupings of characters – but this is merely a minor quibble. This epic work cemented Altman’s reputation as an anti-establishment filmmaker who was largely unconcerned with the traditional, precise storytelling that was prevalent in most of Hollywood’s output. As Roger Ebert, a huge fan of the film, pointed out: ‘The buried message may be that life doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion to the neat ending of a story. It’s messy and we bump up against others, and we’re all in this together.’ 40 years on its energy and wit has not dimmed with the passing of time and its status as one of the definitive statements on 1970s America has justifiably been long-held.
Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Joan Tewkesbury
Starring: David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert DoQui, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel, Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen, Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, Keenan Wynn
Running Time: 160 minutes