Nashville (United States, 1975)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Not only is Nashville the title of Robert Altman's 1975 cinematic masterpiece and the name of the city in which the action is set, but it is the biggest and most colorful character on a palette crammed with well-developed, interesting individuals. While many of the themes represented in Nashville have universal implications, this movie could not have been made elsewhere. Every frame exudes the essence of the location. For that reason, Altman not only set the film in Nashville, but filmed it there, as well.

Nashville is the world capital of country/western music, and that sound typifies the city. So it is fitting that Altman's film is practically wall-to-wall songs, with more than two-dozen (most of which were written specifically for the movie) eating up in excess of one-third of the running time. In fact, the level of music content is so high that Altman refers to Nashville as a musical. Insofar as the film uses music to define characters and set a mood, no one would argue that statement, although Nashville does not use the songs to advance the plot in the way a traditional movie or stage musical does.

Instead of employing a long line of country/western standards, Altman elected to use new music. Radio play was also not the director's intent, although Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy" crossed over to the pop charts. Few, if any, of the songs are masterpieces, but Altman's intention was to represent a cross-section of the kind of music that emerges from Nashville, not to develop a flawless soundtrack. Many of the songs were penned and performed by the actor/singers. Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, and Henry Gibson all contributed (as did Gary Busey, who was originally slated to be in the movie, but had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts). And, unlike in parody films of This Is Spinal Tap's ilk, the intention here is not to lampoon country music, but to celebrate it, warts and all.

Nashville has two backdrops. The first is the city, with its rich musical heritage. The second is one of America's dirtiest and most favorite games – politics. The film takes place in the days preceding the Tennessee presidential primary. (The actual year is not stated, but one can make an educated guess that it's 1976.) A maverick candidate, Hal Phillip Walker of the Replacement Party, has taken the country by storm. The so-called "mystery man" has already won three primaries and is poised to take Tennessee. His platform is simple: he stands for everything rejected by the major parties, including changing the National Anthem and removing all lawyers from Congress. His stances are radical, but, in the post-Watergate era (the movie was being filmed at the time when Richard Nixon resigned), it strikes a responsive chord not touched by the Republicans or Democrats. In today's cynical world of politics, Walker's words have lost none of their appeal.

In this cauldron of music and politics, Altman mixes a stew that contains two-dozen significant characters. Nashville isn't one long story; it's an interweaving of many shorter ones. And, though there are many minor intersection points, it isn't until the finale, which takes place at a Hal Phillip Walker rally, when all of the principals come together. Until then, they are living out their lives in close proximity to each other, but without impacting anyone except those in their immediate circles.

One of the characters with slightly more screen time than the others is country superstar Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who is returning to the concert tour after recovering from burns sustained in a fire. Barbara Jean is arguably still too weak to face the rigors of regular appearances in front of an audience, but she insists on going forward with her plans, regardless of the toll it takes upon her health. Her fellow singer, Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), mouths platitudes of sympathy for Barbara Jean, but is really more concerned with his own career, which has taken a downturn. Meanwhile, Barbara Jean's chief nemesis, Connie White (Karen Black), is using her rival's period out of the spotlight to bolster her own career.

At this time, Walker's front men, national campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy) and local lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are preparing a huge rally for their candidate at the Parthenon, a Nashville landmark. For one of their fundraisers, they hire a local singer, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), expecting her to do a striptease in front of an audience of drunk big spenders. Sueleen, believing this to be her "big break", agrees to take her clothes off only after she is promised a chance to sing with Barbara Jean on stage at the rally.

The folk rock group of Tom, Mary, and Bill find their arrival in Nashville overshadowed by Barbara Jean's comeback. While Bill (Allan Nicholls) haggles with Triplette over the benefits of performing at the Walker rally, Tom (Keith Carradine) and Mary (Cristina Raines) carry on an affair. But Mary isn't the only one Tom is sleeping with. He is also spending time with Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a BBC reporter who is in Nashville making a documentary; Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), Delbert's bored wife; and L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), a flower power girl from California who is in Tennessee visiting her uncle, Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), and her terminally ill aunt.

Other characters include a quiet border named Norman (David Arkin), who is staying in Mr. Green's house; a mysterious stranger (Jeff Goldblum) who rides around town on a motorcycle; a military man (Scott Glenn) who has appointed himself as Barbara Jean's protector; and a wannabe singer (Barbara Harris) who gets her big chance in the wake of a tragedy.

Altman proves that it is possible to develop sympathy for a diverse group of individuals in only a short time. Most of the characters have less than 20 minutes of screen time, yet, after only a scene or two with each of them, we develop an emotional investment in their future. At times, the film plays almost like a screwball comedy, but there are moments of genuine power always lurking just around the corner. The scene where a stunned Mr. Green learns he has lost his wife is one to tear at the heart. Equally painful is Sueleen's reluctant striptease before the animalistic audience whose members are unaware of the price being extracted from her to remove each garment. And, in what may be Nashville's most remarkable sequence, Keith Carradine's Tom croons "I'm Easy" to a full bar in which four women believe he is singing directly and exclusively to them. (Only one – Lily Tomlin's Linnea – is correct in her assumption. The other three have already been conquered and discarded by the womanizing rock star.)

Altman filmed Nashville not as a documentary, but in a "documentary style". Although key passages of dialogue were scripted, and the actors had to learn their lines, Altman encouraged improvisation, especially in the background. He also elected to film moments rather than actors, resulting in less coverage and fewer close-ups. Actors, unsure when their actions would be captured by the camera, were forced to remain in character for an entire scene, even if they had no lines and were merely standing around out-of-focus.

The acting is entirely unaffected. Every performance rings true, whether from an experienced actor or a neophyte. No member of Nashville's cast was a "big name" at the time, but several would use this film as a significant stepping stone towards a successful career: Jeff Goldblum, Ned Beatty, Scott Glenn, Shelly Duvall, and Geraldine Chaplin. The two most accomplished examples of acting in the film belong to Lily Tomlin, who suppresses the comedic side of her persona in order to essay the loving mother of deaf children who subordinates her own needs and desires to those of her boys, and Geraldine Chaplin, whose energetic reporter provides a larger-than-life perspective for everything that transpires.

Nashville ends with an assassination – not the assassination of a politician, but of an entertainer. When the movie was made, in 1975, this was something that had not yet occurred in real life. Assassinations were, if not commonplace, at least not unheard of, but they were always of political figures. (The Kennedys are mentioned during a lengthy monologue given by Barbara Baxley.) Nashville extends this into a different arena, and, in a chilling case of life imitating art, a similar scenario would be played out in New York City five years later when a bullet brought down John Lennon. Since then, other celebrities have died at the hands of stalkers. Altman claims no particular prescience where the subject matter is concerned; he indicates that this aspect of Nashville was merely reflecting the inevitable.

Nashville is rightly viewed by many critics as the greatest of all the large-cast ensemble films. Throughout his distinguished career, Altman has been known for working with large groups of actors involved in interconnecting storylines with overlapping dialogue, but never has he accomplished more than what he did here. Even Short Cuts, a powerful and challenging film in its own right, lacks the full emotional and intellectual impact of Nashville. For reasons that have as much to do with the screenplay (by Joan Tewkesbury) and the acting as with Altman's direction, Nashville has been established as the pinnacle to which all other ensemble pictures must aspire, and the standard by which they are judged. There is so much in this film that it cannot all be absorbed in one viewing. Nashville demands to be seen repeatedly, if only so that the movie-goer can recognize previously missed elements. This repeatability is one of the traits of a masterpiece, and, regardless of the criteria applied, Nashville surely must be considered as a modern classic – a motion picture whose scope and influence extend far beyond what is displayed on screen during its 160-minute running time.

Nashville (United States, 1975)

Ranked #65 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:39
U.S. Release Date: 1975-06-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1