Nashville, the 1975 ensemble film by famed director Robert Altman which crystallized the canon of adventurous films that symbolized the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s, celebrates its 40th anniversary today.
Released in theaters on June 11, 1975, Nashville, which is a sprawling patchwork of 24 characters who intermingle in various ways over a weekend in the famed Tennessee city, remains one of the most risk-taking and eclectic motion pictures ever committed to celluloid. Full of rich characterizations; dialogue that appears to have been completely improvised; direction and staging that in many sequences make the picture almost seem in a documentary and cinema verite vein; sound that manifests from placements of microphones that seem to emanate from all four corners of the frames and of course; a musical soundtrack in which the actors in the film actually sing and even in some cases wrote the songs themselves (especially the Academy Award-winning “I’m Easy” by Keith Carradine), Nashville remains like an indie film raised to the highest apex, a film that in essence could and would never be released in today’s day and age, a true zeitgeist of its (and our) time.
With Robert Altman at the helm, taking his strengths from some of his greatest pictures like MASH and the wonderful and criminally overrated McCabe and Ms. Miller, Nashville becomes more than just an at first glance picture about people congregating in the milieu of the heartland of Country Music. It (like Altman’s best films) becomes an allegorical tale of a destroyed America circa 1975, which was beaten and ripped at the seams at all sides during that time in its history, which was to celebrate its 200th birthday the following year. References to society, mid-American life, political pseudo-jingoism, loneliness, being an outcast, celebrity, adultery, and finally tragedy which breeds rebirth in many ways, are all covered like a tent in the film, and Altman (and to a lesser extent the crackerjack and sprawling script by Joan Tewkesbury, which was basically a blueprint for Altman’s trademark prescribed improvisation he implored his actors to undertake in the film) turns each screw deftly, sealing his visions and also tightening the rusty bolts of the undercurrent of America.
Led by the character of Barbara Jean (expertly and sympathetically played by Ronee Blakley), who in a way is the only moral compass of the film, Nashville is a cornucopia of rich characterizations, which seamlessly intertwine and interact with each other. The ensemble cast — comprised of Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, Robert Doqui, Michael Murphy, Shelly Duvall, Keenan Wynn, Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Geraldine Chaplin, a wordless and early performance by Jeff Goldblum and others — flows back and forth like an encased pinball in a large machine that is Nashville, full of eager citizens who gobble up the town’s musical creativity and the people who make them. There are multiple stories which bleed into each other, but the main one is a politician who wants to conduct a rally in his bid for the Presidency of the United States. Making the stop in Nashville, many of the film’s characters, who are either musicians or directly involved behind the scenes in that vocation, all come together at a rally for said politician in an outdoor concert at the city’s famed Parthenon, which is at the film’s denouement, after we have gotten to know the quirks, trials, and tribulations of all 24 characters, and is akin to a pop bottle having been shook for the entire two and a half hours of the film and finally being released, propulsion and explosion giving way to shock and ultimately and bizarrely as only Altman could do it, catharsis.
It’s the kind of film that a lesser skilled director could never have pulled off, let alone even know how to approach it from the start, as characters seem to wander where they want and say what they want. Ample attention must be paid, since it’s the kind of movie where even if a line or two is missed by the viewer, the entire schematic could go out of whack. Again, like the best works of Altman, attention yields rewards, and it’s because of that attention needing to be paid that makes a casual viewer of Nashville possibly dismiss it on first glance, unconsciously realizing that by giving it that casual glance, they have missed the undercurrent which is essentially the film’s engine, which essentially yields the aforementioned greatest rewards, and which makes Nashville the masterpiece that it is. Don’t be fooled, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was also a great ensemble picture and cleaned up at the following year’s award shows in 1976, but it’s truly Nashville that was the dark horse of the race that year, and the picture which truly should have netted Robert Altman the elusive Best Director Oscar he never was able to attain.
If you’ve never seen it, by all means, grab it. There’s a beautiful print of it that was released in the not too distant past by the Criterion Collection. For those who have seen it again and again, it remains as rich as any other American picture in the history of Hollywood and thus, never gets old or loses its originality and freshness, adjectives that some of the great auteurs of any cinema age get affixed to them, Robert Altman certainly and in perpetuity, notwithstanding.
The tagline on the original movie poster for the film was that Nashville is “The Damndest Thing You Ever Saw.” And from the audacious, envelope-pushing and prodding of story, narrative, exposition and technique, there’s no other way to put it. Forty years strong, Nashville only gets stronger as the Hollywood time clock keeps ticking on. See and judge for yourself.