A cavalcade of seventies hopefuls and future stars strut their stuff in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975); a cornucopia of southern-styled home cooking, brilliantly conceived as a microcosmic heartland of country music. Nashville is perhaps the perfect tribute to America's bicentennial, what with Altman’s verve for overlapping dialogue and Joan Tewkesbury’s hyper-critical screenplay exposing these seedy misfits, musical marvels and never-to-be protégées in all their greedy, self-absorbed pursuits to hit the big time; the emerging portrait of this famed Tennessee capital, at once tantalizing, ugly, contemptible, yet downright spellbinding.
Whether it’s sacrificial lamb, warm-hearted first lady of country music, Barbara-Jean (Ronee Blakley – so deliberately a knock off of Loretta Lynn) or misguided waitress, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) – who quits her day job for a chance to share the spotlight but winds up the brunt of a deliberate set-up to strip to a room of cat-calling middle age contributors during a political fundraiser, or even the kindly middle-aged, Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) about to unexpectedly become a widower and virtually ignored by his narcissistic niece, Martha (a.k.a. L.A. Joan played by Shelley Duvall, in an utterly bizarre role); Nashville evokes a caste system in this red-neck aristocracy, equal parts comedy and pathos. Apart from the inevitable dating (the movie is undeniably an artifact of the seventies, yet thematically, even more relevant and universal today) these fractured lives on display continuing to resonate with a cheap luster translating to a most assured - if tawdry - appeal.
Initially, Altman was asked by United Artists (UA) to do a film in Nashville from an already acquired screenplay. Altman read and hated the story. However, he did agree to direct something of his own for UA, dispatching long-time friend and writer, Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville to keep a daily journal of her first-time experiences. Tewkesbury’s inauspicious arrival, grappling with the crowded, noisy chaos oozing southern hospitality on all sides, and, a perilous car wreck stalling traffic for miles along the interstate, would eventually become the first act of Nashville. Altman loved what Tewkesbury had done. But at some point, UA became thoroughly unimpressed with this free-flowing approach and released him from his contractual obligation. Undaunted, Altman took his story to ABC and producer, Jerry Weintrub who immediate green lit the project without any reservations.
Viewing Nashville today is an uncanny ‘through the looking-glass’ experience. The country music empire has long-since moved beyond these humble beginnings depicted in the movie, as a melting pot for star-struck yokels and disenfranchised, fresh-off-the-farm outsiders, the proverbial American dream tucked deep into their blue jeans back pockets; a fourth grade education and lifetime of waiting tables at a greasy spoon on their précis. Today’s mainstream affiliations with country music have somewhat eclipsed the immediacy of the 'little' story Altman is trying to tell and, at least on this level Nashville plays more like a quaint relic today; its perpetually side-burned ‘good ole boys’ and high-haired Aqua-Net divas truly giving historical significance to its ‘time capsule’ appeal.
Nashville was ill-received in Nashville at the time of its release; Altman criticized for his use of songs written by various cast members in lieu of using time-honored ditties penned on the river by real country folk to augment and authenticate his story with ‘ya’ll come back now’ verisimilitude. In retrospect the eclectic score, featuring the Oscar-winning ‘I’m Easy’, sung with unapologetic masculine sadness by Keith Carradine, is a blessing. Both the songs and the characters who sing them run parallel to the ‘then’ reality. And Altman, in a grander, more prolific wisdom, has discovered the kernels of his social commentary on the struggles and tragedy of life in the most unlikely of places.
Whether it’s the frank and scintillating pontification of the movie’s fictional politico, Hal Philip Walker (written and voiced by real-life politician Thomas Hal Philips who is never seen, but omnipotent from bugled loudspeakers blaring his alter ego’s campaign message to the people) or Barbara Harris’ emotional outpouring of a post-celebrity assassination dirge, ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ (“You may say, that I ain’t free…but it don’t worry me!”) - Nashville envelopes its audience in a panorama dedicated to this surreal mendacity. None of the characters who populate this movie are genuine of heart or purpose. Nor are any of them able to articulate what it is they hope to achieve beyond their vacuous thirst of instant fame – an elusive and ultimately very self-destructive carrot dangled before their noses; the puppet masters all too eager to capitalize on the intellectual deficiencies of this talent pool.
Nashville is a diamond in the rough; careworn and coated in dust off a lonely country road, not so much because it demystifies the perceived simplicity of homespun southern folk direct from the Grand Ole Opry. We do, in fact, see far more of the salacious backstage shenanigans than any performance from these alter-icons in the industry; the backstabbing between Cheshire-grinning rivals and the unscrupulous exploitation of raw talent by those closest to it. Altman has labeled Nashville as 'his musical', but the movie doesn’t exactly play as such – even as an ‘integrated musical’. As written and performed, the songs serve the melodrama while curiously never advancing the story. In a way, each is an introspective requiem; our caricatures expressing through their music what they are utterly incapable of sharing with others privately through more articulate thoughts. When Altman’s stars take to the mic and the movie allows them their uninterrupted moment, the songs always inform on a multitude of levels beyond mere entertainment value.
Of these, Ronee Blakley’s stories within a song are the most heartrending to endure; the kitten-faced, emotionally fragile woman, straight-jacketed into a career by a sadistic money-hungry spouse, Barnett (Alan Garfield) only interested in her profitability as a country superstar. Blakley’s tender portrait is the lynch pin that keeps the other meandering narrative threads from unraveling to the point of abject absurdity. One senses a great talent unable to stop this perverse manipulation and slowly being destroyed by her own gifts. When Blakely dedicates Barbara Jean’s penultimate appearance at a political rally to ‘mama and daddy’ Altman converges and contrasts her unassuming sweetness with the cold calculations of a political hack, via his shameless promoter, John Triplette (Michael Murphy) who, after Barbara Jean is fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet can only pace the concourse of the Parthenon, considering what her death has done to his candidate’s chances of winning the Presidential primary.
Barbara Jean’s story is not the only one Altman tells with intricate details. In another part of town is Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin); a gospel singer courting disaster with disreputable scamp, Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) who seduces women as readily as he slips in and out of his BVD's. Carradine’s egotistical parasite is often misconstrued as a ruthless womanizer. In point of fact, he is a cleft man; his morally loose-fitting identity wrapped in a belief that talent – as either part of a popular country/western trio or burgeoning solo artist - entitles him to dalliances with an ever-evolving line of sexually willing, but emotionally vapid, groupies. Linnea is the exception to this entourage: a mother of two deaf children openly resisting Tom’s telephoned advances at first, but bowing to temptation as an escape from her rather pointless marriage to political promoter, Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty).
Altman fleshes out these woeful stories of human heartache, at intervals ringing tinny rather than true in their dedication to the cliché ‘my baby done left me, my horse died and somebody just stole my truck’ with a teeming populace of stellar support: Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton – the diminutive and perpetually frustrated pride of the Opry who suffers from a short man’s complex (a role originally intended for Robert Duval); Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal ‘from the BBC’ – a rather flighty and easily stirred social butterfly intruding on all these lives, microphone in hand, chipper-voiced and bouncing in and out of frame without ever committing herself to the people she is supposed to get to know; Barbara Harris’ hopeless simpleton, Winifred, who spends the bulk of the movie eluding her redneck husband, guitar in hand, but rises to the occasion, calling cattle down from the Ozarks for the movie’s exceptionally fine closer, ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ – Altman’s liberal ode to gun control; Karen Black – as self-absorbed and utterly insular Connie White; a serious rival to Barbara Jean should the latter suddenly slip and fall from grace, and finally, David Hayward as Kenny Frasier; the unassuming, socially awkward mama’s boy who proves to be anything but in the final reel.
If only to limit this critique to the aforementioned in greater detail, then Nashville would already be an intense and intricate character study. But Nashville’s secondary and even tertiary cast always compels our viewing. Who can forget Jeff Goldblum’s nearly silent performance as ‘tricycle man’ – a leering, long-haired hippie performing magic tricks to impress waitresses at local nightclubs and roadside greasy spoons; Barbara Baxley’s Lady Pearl – Hamilton’s dutiful wife unable to rid herself of some terrible sadness or resilient pride as she ‘stands by her man’; Timothy Brown as the homogenized Opry-land crooner, Tommy Brown – having transgressed in the eyes of some Non-Caucasian brethren as being the ‘whitest n_gger in town’; or Scott Glenn’s decorated war veteran ever-devoted to Barbara Jean who cannot bring himself to be her champion until it is too late.
Nashville sells its wares with an extraordinary vitality because Altman markets his cast with a presence for each and every part. Nothing and no one is wasted. Even the cameos – Julie Christie and Elliot Gould (each playing themselves) – come with a payoff; Christie’s leading to a particularly funny gag when Connie White, in addition to not knowing who Julie Christie is, adds to her own arrogant ridiculousness a playfully chiding Hamilton for lying to her about Christie’s popularity as a movie star.
Nashville opens in the true spirit of shameless self-promotion; Altman staging the credits over a faux album cover and a hyperactive voiceover reading off the names of his cast. From this flamboyant opener we retreat to the campaign offices of Hal Philip Walker, a van equipped with bugle horns peddling the great man’s prophetic ‘what’s wrong with America?’ diatribes up and down the city streets, exquisitely contrasted as the movie retreats into a recording booth where Haven Hamilton is cutting his patriotic salute to America – the beautiful; 200 Years. The demo is frequently interrupted by Hamilton’s mounting vexation with his slightly stoned piano player, Frog (composer Richard Baskin) and his tetchiness directed at an unwanted visitor, Opal – from the BBC. Hamilton’s rather beefy but congenial son, Buddy (David Peel) is ordered to escort Opal out; her interview ongoing as Opal and Bud step into another booth laying tracks for Linnea and a local gospel choir.
Altman gives us no more than a few snippets for what will follow, and yet they are exceptionally well-placed to whet our appetites. We move into an airport terminal where the Tricycle man is entertaining waitress Sueleen Gay with his slights of hand. Sueleen is impressed; her employer, Wade less so. We also meet Mr. Green, informing a patron he is waiting for his niece, Martha (Shelley Duval) – come all the way from California to visit her ailing aunt. Also newly arrived are feuding marrieds and fellow band members, Mary (Cristina Raines) and Bill (Allan Nicholls). Bill suspects his wife of infidelity. But not even he can fathom that his better half has been sweating up the sheets with the third wheel in their band, Tom Franks, presently avoiding both Mary and Bill to launch his solo singing career.
Landing at the airport is Barbara Jean – the first lady of country music, newly recovered from severe burns sustained during a house fire. Dressed in virginal white and flanked by an entourage that includes her handler/husband, Barnett, Hamilton, his wife Lady Pearl and Hal Walker’s PR man, John Triplette, Barbara Jean braves her adoring fans and a full-out marching band before suffering another collapse on the tarmac. She is rushed to the hospital post haste. Departing the recording studio, Opal shares a car with Linnea, the two winding up in gridlock after a six car pileup on the interstate delays traffic for miles. Opal exploits the moment to interview Tommy Brown and his band. Returning home, Linnea receives a cryptic phone call from Tom imploring a romantic rendezvous while her husband, Del is entertaining Hal Walker’s political organizer, John Triplette at dinner. Linnea reluctantly refuses his invitation but then agrees to accept another phone call at a less awkward time; the second call met with nervous repudiation as Del listens in on the other line.
Meanwhile, reclusive Kenny and the guileless, Winifred meet along a lonely road into Nashville; each briefly sharing their reasons for coming to town. Winifred confides she is on the lam from her husband, ducking into a nearby gas station at the first sight of his red pickup. Kenny hitches a ride into town and later rents a room from Mr. Green. That afternoon Hamilton has an informal gathering at his house, Triplette persuading him that if he were to back Walker’s campaign with a few public appearances Walker would reciprocate by promoting Hamilton as a viable prospect for the state’s next governor. In the presence of his wife, Lady Pearl – who insists they remain apolitical – Hamilton politely declines this offer, but afterward encourages Triplette to attend his live performance at the Opry where he will ultimately give his consent.
Not heeding Wade’s advice – to keep her day job – Sueleen debuts her singing act at a seedy watering hole. It’s painful, but her provocative off-key purring incites the club’s owner, Trout (Merle Kilgore) to play a very cruel trick on her; recommending Sueleen appear at Triplette’s fundraiser as a stripper without her knowledge. At the hospital, Barnett isolates Barbara Jean from a barrage of well-wishers, the pair quietly listening to a live broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry where singer Connie White is a last minute substitute for what ought to have been Barbara Jean’s comeback. Connie brings down the house and Barbara Jean is made jealous.
After Barbara Jean throws a slight tantrum Barnett cruelly suggests she is losing her mind and treats her with contempt and condescension before leaving to go ‘hobnobbing’ with Hamilton and Connie at a popular night spot, thus rendering Barbara Jean inconsolable. Once she has fallen asleep alone in her hospital room, Barbara Jean is visited by Pfc. Kelly who was actually instrumental in rescuing her from the fire. After the show, Hamilton informs Triplette, who is impressed with Connie’s Opry performance that Barbara Jean and Connie never appear together, but that he will agree to appear anywhere Barbara Jean does. The onus is now on Triplette to get Barnett to agree to have his wife appear at Hal Walker’s campaign rally. Meanwhile Bill is incensed with Mary, suspecting she is having an affair with Tom. Mary is, in fact, in love with Tom and whispers as much during their post coital embrace; an unreciprocated confession.
So far, Nashville has been a series of relatively disjointed misfortunes and misadventures told with Robert Altman’s quirky and inimitable style. But Altman now moves into his third act with a series of poignant revelations. Mr. Green is informed by a nurse at the hospital that his wife passed away during the night. Opal and Tom, then Tom and Linnea sleep together. Opal spends the next day wandering through stockpiles of rusty cars and hulking school buses at the auto graveyard, spouting poetic elegies into her tape recorder. We segue to a stock car race where Winifred’s singing debut is drowned out by the deafening hum of the raging engines. Triplette implores Bill and Mary, who have been feuding all morning, to perform at Hal Walker’s rally.
Back at Mr. Green's house, Kenny becomes disturbed while on the phone to his mother when Martha attempts to take a peek inside his violin case. Barbara Jean performs at Opryland USA, Triplette doing his best to coax Barnett into agreeing to an appearance at the Parthenon. But only moments into her second song, Barbara Jean suffers some sort of a mental breakdown and we, the audience, are suddenly made aware of how deeply and emotionally scarred and fragile she is. Barbara Jean’s pathetic ramblings cause the crowd to boo her and throw things at the stage. To temper their displeasure, Barnett tells the audience they can come to the Parthenon the next afternoon to hear Barbara Jean sing for free, thereby committing her to Hal Walker’s rally under certain preconditions ironed out with Triplette, all of them ignored once it is already too late for Barbara Jean to back out.
At his insistence, Linnea goes to see Tom perform at a nightclub, choosing to isolate herself at the back of the club when she sees Martha attempting to pick Tom up. At another table Mary’s pride is wounded when Opal inadvertently confesses she and Tom have slept together. Tom is asked to sing, performing with Mary and Bill and then making his solo debut with ‘I’m Easy’ – a rather sincere confessional ballad about a man recognizing his own failings to commit to any relationship. Moved by the song, Linnea goes back to Tom’s room after the show where the two make love. When Linnea needs to leave, citing commitments to her children, Tom callously calls another woman and has a very flirtatious conversation in her presence.
Sueleen premieres at the all-male fundraiser and is informed by Del and Triplette that she is expected to take her clothes off to satisfy the crowd – her compensation for this public humiliation a chance to sing at the Parthenon the next day with Barbara Jean. Sueleen becomes uncomfortably numb as she bares her all to these leering tomcats, Wade coming to her rescue a short while later on the front stoop of their boarding house by urging her to go back to Detroit with him. But Sueleen refuses, still believing her own fame is just around the corner. The next day the performers arrive at the Parthenon. Walker’s name towering overhead on a billowing canvas enrages Barnett who had been assured by Triplette that no mention of the candidate would be on display. Mr. Green angrily departs his wife’s burial with Kenny in pursuit to go in search of Martha who has rather callously ignored him since her arrival in town and has gone to the rally instead.
Hamilton and Barbara Jean perform together before Barbara Jean dedicates a solo to her parents - a rousing ditty about the hard-knock life of steadfast and exceptionally proud people who raised their children with love and devotion. The moment is shattered as Kenny pulls out a pistol and shoots Barbara Jean dead, wounding Hamilton in the arm. As Pfc. Kelly wrestles Kenny to the ground, Hamilton attempts to calm the crowd. Hal Walker’s motorcade departs without the crowd ever seeing the ‘great man’, leaving Triplette to pace back and forth, contemplating what the assassination has done to his client’s chances of becoming the next President of the United States. Winifred takes advantage of the situation, belting out the inspiring and defiant ballad, ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ with Linnea’s gospel choir chiming in; Altman’s camera tilting from the incongruity of this garish spectacle to a hopeful blue sky before fading to black.
In these final moments Nashville becomes a penitent masterpiece; its apocryphal tragedy transformed into a self-effacing celebration of the human spirit. Only in retrospect does this moment seem imbued with clairvoyance; Altman later asked by a New York Time’s reporter if he ‘felt responsible’ for contributing to the cultural mindset that inspired Mark David Chapman to assassinate John Lennon. In response, Altman replied, “If anything ‘you’ should feel responsible for not heeding my warning.”
Viewed today, Nashville remains scathingly original; truly a showcase for Robert Altman’s epic vision of this thin slice of Americana made unapologetic and derisive. This isn’t ‘America the beautiful’ but rather American Gothic Redux; a richly absorbing, free-flowing country/western musical/docu-drama/comedy with all the grand meditations of a cinema genius so clearly in love and obsessing over his material. In most any other case this would spell disaster for the finished feature. But Altman has proven time and again he knows how to make eclecticism thrive on the big movie screen; how to ply his celebrity-laced junkets with flashes of high-flying exhilaration, each and every jumbled moment counting toward something greater than itself.
While the characters populating Altman’s masterwork are decidedly insular, self-serving and self-destructing all at once, the movie exponentially expands in its premise, building to its crescendo by bringing together all of these intricately woven narrative threads; a bawdy, gaudy claptrap somehow never unraveling despite its tenuous cohesion. Prepare yourself for a movie unlike most any other you’re likely to see. Altman’s Nashville is the cinematic equivalent of a hearty swig; potent moonshine newly brewed off a backwater distillery.
Nashville on Blu-ray is an exceptionally fine presentation. The DVD from Paramount had suffered from a considerable amount of age-related artifacts, faded colors and a curious ‘greenish’ tint. Criterion’s new hi-def incarnation eradicates all of the aforementioned shortcomings and adds a superb reproduction of film grain. The Blu-ray’s palette is decidedly warmer, flesh appearing far more natural. Contrast levels are pristine. The ‘wow’ factor is in evidence in every frame. You are going to love this disc! The remastered DTS audio isolates Altman’s scattered overlapping dialogue, the music being the only enveloping presence across all 5.1 channels with exceptional depth and clarity.
Now, for the goodies. We get Altman’s audio commentary and brief interview, each recorded for Paramount’s DVD from 2000. Criterion has produced a new hour long documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews from Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls and Lily Tomlin, plus screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury; assistant director Alan Rudolph and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman. Criterion also adds two more archival interviews with Altman; almost a half hour from 1975 and a snippet recorded in 2002 that is less than ten minutes. There’s behind-the-scenes footage and demos of Keith Carradine performing the songs he wrote for the movie. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer and liner notes from feminist/critic Molly Haskell. Criterion has also included 2 DVDs in this package, containing all of the aforementioned. Bottom line: one of the highlights of 2013 and a must have. Break out the banjos. It’s Nashville, y’all!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)