Starring: Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Ned Beatty
Director: Robert Altman
Charting the activities of a vast array of characters as they scurry about the capital of country music over the course of several days, Nashville has been regarded as a classic of American cinema almost from the moment it was released. Ambitious, technically innovative, warmly humane, this was Altman’s state of the nation movie.
However, as a portrait of Nashville itself the movie has its drawbacks, largely because by his own admission Altman knew and cared little about country music, and didn’t trouble himself to include any real country and western talent. (The actors wrote or co-wrote their own songs, and you might want to block your ears during some of them.) Similarly, if you stop to analyse the individual characters who make up Altman’s panorama, you notice a reliance on broad stereotypes – Geraldine Chaplin’s wittering English journalist, the old school country and western star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who specializes in rabidly right-wing patriotism and mawkishly sentimental ballads.
But all that is beside the point. The reason why Nashville stunned critics like Pauline Kael at the time of its release was because here was a movie that seemed to have been propagated upon organic principles, a movie that felt like a living thing. It has a structure and all kinds of connecting tissues, but it never seems rigid and it seems to flow airily around its characters, letting them do what they will.
So it begins with the hustle and bustle of people arriving at Nashville airport, then follows them onto a pile-up on the freeway, then picks them up again later at the Exit Inn, the blue grass joint that is the watering hole of choice for those in the music industry.And almost as a by-product, snapshots of various national stress-points emerge – a black working stiff drunkenly calling out a black country and western star for being “the whitest n***** in Nashville”, or the moment when a soldier on leave is standing at the airport, minding his own business, and Keith Carradine’s longhaired folkie snipes at him, “Kill anybody today?”
It also pays attention to the shifting gender relations of the ’70s. Unlike some films of the era, in Nashville women are both seen and heard, and you can practically feel the seething force of their ambitions – sexual, social and artistic. There’s Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), the runaway wife who’s desperate to get a break as a singer. There’s the reporter Opal, ever in search of a story. There’s the long-legged LA Joan (Shelley Duvall), hopping from guy to guy. They’re all trying to bust in from the margins to the centre of the action. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that in the dramatic final scenes of the film, it’s a woman who becomes the victim of a crazed assassination attempt.
Many of Nashville‘s innovations would become part of the standard repertoire of cinema and TV (especially TV), blunting the film’s impact for viewers today. But its sheer scope ensures that it remains unique. Watching it is like peering into a busy rock pool, and there’s a message implicit in its top-down perspective – that our individual lives are a kind of illusion, and to really understand what it means to be human you have to look at the larger picture.
The HD transfer has some grain in the interior scenes, but the exteriors are bright and crisp, and the delightful ’70s costumes really snap into focus, especially Shelley Duvall’s knee-length socks and amazing red and yellow stack-heeled wedges. Extras include an audio commentary with Robert Altman as well as two interviews, recorded in 2000-2001. In the first, he explains how the screenplay drew on a diary by scriptwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who was packed off on a research trip to Nashville. He also talks about the casting, revealing, for instance, that the part of Haven Hamilton was originally offered to Robert Duvall. In the second interview, he covers his early days in industrial films, the financing of Nashville and his determination to avoid big budget projects so as to keep under the radar.
There’s also a charming 13-minute interview with actor Michael Murphy (who plays the sharp political operator in town to organize a rally). He discusses the ab libbing that went on on set, and Altman’s ability to bounce back from critical and commercial drubbings. The highlight, though, is a compelling 25-minute interview with scriptwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who talks about her early days as a script girl on McCabe and Mrs Miller and tells the story of her eventful trip to Nashville, many incidents from which found their way into the movie. Listening to her discuss the development of the script and characters, you might well come to the conclusion that if anyone’s the auteur of the film, it’s her. And yet Nashville looks slightly out of place on her CV, while fitting very snugly into Altman’s. Another example of cinema’s strange alchemy.