NASHVILLE (1975)

  • Director: Robert Altman
  • Writer: Joan Tewkesbury
  • Starring: Henry Gibson, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Geraldine Chaplin, Karen Black, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, Gwen Welles, and Keenan Wynn
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#57), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#73), 1 Oscar (Best Original Song – “I’m Easy), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Robert Altman, Best Supporting Actress – Ronee Blakley, Best Supporting Actress – Lily Tomlin)
  • Where to Watch: Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV.

I am definitely not a country music fan, at all. This is a movie that contains a literal entire hour consisting solely of just country music performances, many of them by amateurs. Yet I love this movie. How is this possible? Well, there is certainly a lot of music, but there is also a lot of dialogue. A lot, a lot. This is perhaps the magnum opus of the director Robert Altman. As with many of his other films, though perhaps to a greater degree, there really isn’t a plot. The cast is sprawling, with no single star. Instead, there are thirty or so different, realized characters. Sometimes their lives intersect, sometimes they don’t. Wikipedia describes this movie as a “satirical ensemble musical comedy drama.” I suppose that’s one way to say it.

Altman’s camera pokes around corners and shifts between conversations. He pioneered a method of recording several pieces of dialogue at the same time on different tracks, so they would all be just as clear and overlap with each other. It’s a turn off for some people, I think, and like catnip for others. Take this scene, a fairly typical one, in which the actress Julie Christie (she plays herself) happens by the table of some Nashville stars. It’s fairly typical of the entire movie. 

The biggest throughlines of the movie involve the comeback of a beloved country music star named Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who has just been released from the hospital after a “breakdown.” At the same time, an outsider presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign is trying to recruit country musicians for a rally in front of the Parthenon (a lot of people don’t know this, but there really is a full size replica of the Greek Parthenon in the middle of a park in Nashville for… reasons). We never see him up close, but a van playing a seemingly interminable recorded message from him trundles through the background of much of the movie, playing messages that range from folksy aphorisms (“Did you ever ask a lawyer for the time? He told you how to make a watch.”) to pure dadaism (“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”).

Meanwhile, local superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), with his sparkly skintight suits and songs with titles like “For the Sake of the Children, We Must Say Farewell,” harbors his own political ambitions. The wife of a local agent (Lily Tomlin) has an affair with a womanizing folk star (Keith Carradine). A local waitress (Gwen Welles) deludes herself into thinking that she’s good at singing and gets herself into a bad situation. A young Jeff Goldblum appears in the background of many scenes, gets no lines, and is credited only as “Tricycle Man.” 

Many of the movie’s funniest moments, for myself anyway, go to Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin, who plays a BBC reporter doing a “documentary” on Nashville. She is the closest thing the movie has to an audience surrogate, an outsider who looks askance at all these country music weirdos. But she is also very out of touch herself (she hears a Black church choir and goes off on a whole spiel about how she loves the music because she “can just see their naked, frenzied bodies in darkest Africa”). She also may just be insane: many viewers are shocked when you point out that if she’s doing a documentary for the BBC, where’s her camera crew? My very favorite parts of the movie are when she just wanders through a junkyard and other places, extemporizing on… whatever pops into her head. 

Nashville’s ending is normally the sort of thing that people would consider a “spoiler” if this movie wasn’t decades old, but I think the movie actually works better if you know where it’s going. It adds an air of inexorability to the proceedings. Most of the main characters come together for the climactic rally/concert at the Parthenon. Haven Hamilton and Barbara Jean’s duet is then interrupted when an assassin opens fire; she is hit and collapses. Hamilton, himself shot in the shoulder, insists angrily that the music continue, shouting “This is Nashville, not Dallas! They can’t do this to us here in Nashville!” (It may take a modern viewer longer than it would have someone at the time the movie came out to get that this is a reference to the Kennedy assassination and not just a super random rip on Dallas). The homeless “Albuquerque” (Barbara Harris), a wannabe singer who has cut something of a pathetic figure throughout the movie, finds herself handed the microphone and, with the backing of the Black church choir, enthralls the crowd with a performance of “It Don’t Worry Me.” One star may be dead, but another has been born with hardly a break in the rhythm.

The assassination wasn’t in the script by Joan Tewkesbury, a long-time Altman collaborator who had also written his previous movie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and then spent the actual shoot of that movie hanging out in Nashville (she put several of her experiences from that trip, like the traffic jam where everyone gets out of their cars and hangs out, directly into the script). Altman added the sequence himself. Five years after the movie came out, John Lennon would be shot, and the New York Times called Altman to ask him if he thought he “had any responsibility” for the killing. Altman responded that it was they who had responsibility, for not “heeding his warning.”

Altman himself never did win an Oscar, despite numerous nominations. There were so many great performances in this movie that it received 4 out of 5 Best Supporting Actress nominations at the Golden Globes (this remains a record). Two of these went on to receive Oscar nominations, including Lily Tomlin. This was her first movie part, as she had only appeared on TV before this. I like that her character has two deaf children, to whom we see her speaking in sign language. There isn’t a “reason” for this in the sense of the plot, but if you’re talking about 30 different characters, it makes sense that some would have disabilities. Altman was apparently inspired by the story of the actress Louise Fletcher, who he had worked with two years before in Thieves Like Us, who had two deaf parents.

I’ve said before that watching movies from the mid-1970s today makes me realize that these “unprecedented” times we’re currently living in may not be so unprecedented after all. The feeling of the country after Nixon’s resignation, with a recession running rampant and the nagging feeling we were all about to die in a nuclear war, is different in the specifics from today but perhaps not in the broad, emotional strokes. Hal Phillip Walker’s talking points are purposefully a bit of a nonsensical hodgepodge, but none of them (not even “changing the National Anthem”) would feel especially out of place in today’s discourse. He’s worried about the economy and the Middle East, not whether we should go off the Gold Standard. Despite feeling very, very of its time, Nashville also still feels very much of the now. 

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