Warning: The following review contains potential spoilers. If you have not yet seen Nashville, I would strongly advise you readers to not read any further. If you are interested in the film, please check it out first and then read this review. Why do I say this? The reason is because it is such a complex film.
Now, after years in the making, Robert Altman brings to the big screen
the long-awaited Nashville, with 24 of your very favorite stars!
David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty
And the fabulous performances of Karen Black, Ronee Blakely!
Timothy Brown in Nashville,
along with the spectacular Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin!
With Robert Doqui in Nashville!
And the exciting appearances of Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield!
Henry Gibson in Nashville!
And the fantastic Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum! Barbara Harris
Not to mention the terrific David Hayward, Michael Murphy!
Allan Nicholls in Nashville!
And the all-time great Dave Peel! Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen
Plus the incredible Lily Tomlin!
Gwen Welles and Keenan Wynn
Be the first on your block to marvel at the magnificent stars… through the magic of stereophonic sound and living-color picture… right before your very eyes without commercial interruption.
These are the lines enthusiastically uttered by an unnamed announcer, who is trying to convince us (the audience) that Nashville is one of (If not) the greatest film ever made. His method of persuasion is akin to that of your stereotypical snake oil salesman, who (among other tactics) uses the media (i.e. television ads) to garner the attention of the American public at large. Contrary to how most of these schemes play out elsewhere, in Nashville, the hype is actually and arguably justified entirely by design. Unlike what peddlers of snake oil sell, late master filmmaker Robert Altman (1925-2006) has always sold us something genuine, whether it was a hit-or-miss product. As a huge fan of Altman’s work myself, I adore every single film of his (read here) and this alone, quite possibly elevates me to that of an Altman apologist – a title that I would gladly accept. Theatrically released during the exciting era of the New Hollywood (1967-1982) (read here), Nashville not only serves as the crowning achievement of director Altman’s most experimental period, but it also happens to be one of my top 10 favorite films of all-time. Along with The Godfather, Chinatown and Taxi Driver to name just three of many examples, Nashville is often cited (and deservingly so) as one of the key films of the 1970’s.
The story is set in the city and state of Nashville, Tennessee, during a five-day period, leading up to a political rally for unseen Replacement party presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), whose speeches can occasionally be heard from his campaign van’s loudspeakers throughout the film. Afterwards, we cut to a studio, where country music superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is recording a patriotic song to coincide with the then upcoming United States Bicentennial (read here) with a band of musicians, whose talents leave a lot to be desired in his opinion. After this, we are introduced to quirky British BBC news reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), who is said to be in town filming a documentary on the place. Since Haven is annoyed by her presence, his son Bud Hamilton (Dave Peel) decides to give her a brief tour of the studio. Bud takes Opal to the next room where a recording session is taking place between gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) and her all-black choir. Linnea is married to lawyer Delbert “Del” Reese (Ned Beatty), who just so happens to be the local organizer for Walker’s campaign. Del and Linnea are also the loving parents of two deaf children, who go by the names of Jimmy and Donna. Later on, Haven and his companion Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) go to the city airport to greet famed country singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who had been receiving medical attention at a Baltimore hospital following a burn injury reportedly caused by a fire.
Inside the airport, a large entourage of fans await Barbara Jean’s arrival; among them is Vietnam War veteran Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), whose mother was responsible for saving her life in that previously mentioned fire. Glenn would later tell this story to the aging Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), who is awaiting the arrival of his teenage niece Martha/L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) so he can take her to the hospital to visit her unseen sick Aunt Esther. Nevertheless, Martha/L.A. Joan spends most of her time there getting rides from a silent Tricycle man (Jeff Goldblum) to see male musicians. One of them is the womanizing Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), who autographs a record of his that she owns. He is in town to record an album with his folk rock trio that consists of him, Bill (Allan F. Nicholls) and Mary (Cristina Raines), though he aspires to go solo at the same time during his stay in Nashville. Bill is unhappily married to Mary, but this is partly due to her affair with Tom, whose sexual relationships with other women have been either brief (Opal) or ongoing (Linnea). During their time in Nashville, Bill, Mary and Tom are driven from one destination to another by the amiable Norman (David Arkin), who sees them as friends, whereas in return, they see him as just a hired hand.
Shortly after arriving on the runway, Barbara Jean passes out due to the sweltering heat, which prompts her overprotective husband/manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) and other handlers to rush her to the hospital for medical attention. Following this unfortunate event, her fans and other people get in their cars to leave the airport. Soon enough, a pile-up occurs leaving everybody on the road stranded. While stuck in the traffic jam, an argument breaks out between aspiring country singer Albuquerque/Winifred (Barbara Harris) and her grouchy husband Star (Bert Remsen), which ignited due to his refusal to take her to the Grand Ole Orpy for the following night (read here). After running away from Star, Albuquerque/Winifred meets up and starts a conversation with loner Kenny Frasier (David Hayward), which abruptly ends after Star shows up with his truck to look for her. As Albuquerque/Winifred runs off, Kenny hitches a ride from Star to make his way around town.
Later on that night at Deemen’s Den (a small country music club/bar), airport restaurant waitress Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) goes on stage to perform an original song for a jeering crowd. Sueleen aspires to be a country singer, but unlike Albuquerque/Winifred, she remains blissfully ignorant of her terrible singing skills. Sueleen’s African-American friend and fellow co-worker Wade Cooley (Robert DoQui) tries to remind her of this fact as he is worried that she will be taken advantage of. Meanwhile, Del and smooth-talking political consultant John Triplette (Michael Murphy) are planning two separate events in the form of a fundraiser and concert gala for Hal Philip Walker’s campaign. Aware that the two are in desperate need of talent, Deemen’s Den club manager Trout (Merle Kilgore) recommends Sueleen to them for the former based on her sexy outfit alone; inevitably confirming all of Wade’s warnings. The following day, John tries to convince the politically ambitious Haven to perform at Walker’s gala by promising him that If he agrees, Walker will support him as state governor If elected as U.S. President. Haven tells John that he will give him his final decision after he performs at the Grand Ole Orpy later in the evening. Aside from himself, other highlights there include two other country singers in the form of the African-American Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) and country music diva Connie White (Karen Black), who is substituting that night for the hospitalized Barbara Jean. On the fourth of the five days, Barbara Jean is discharged from the hospital early in the morning; just in time to perform for her fans; not only at Orpyland USA (read here), but also the next day at the Parthenon (read here), which is when Walker’s political rally will finally take place.
Along with other critics (read here), I too view Nashville as the cinematic equivalent of a mosaic, but this observation alone, only justifies half of what makes it so unique. Deep down, the film is also a lyrical, subtly moving, thought-provoking and witty epic, satire, semi-musical and social commentary blended all into one. Despite being set in the state of Tennessee (it was also filmed on location there), one could easily relocate Nashville’s setting to that of Los Angeles (read here) or New York City (read here) (among other places in the U.S.) and the finished result would still remain intact.
On every single level imaginable, Nashville has a lot to say about not only certain aspects of it’s title city, but also that of America as a whole. Based on his songs alone, country music superstar Haven Hamilton could easily be mistaken as a man of moral fiber, but behind that image, reveals somebody who is the complete opposite. For example, near the beginning when he is recording a patriotic song in his recording studio, he notices frequent errors on the part of his musicians and as a result, the frustrated Haven utters dammit and dammit to hell. Despite going to church, Haven worships the almighty dollar first, and God second. In addition to that, he donates a large sum of money to political candidates of both parties (Republican and Democrat alike) and could care less If they support his views. Haven does not even mind accepting bribes either. But hey, he does hate “bad” hairdos – you get your hair cut. You don’t belong in Nashville!. Sarcasm aside, he does know rudeness when he sees it and in this case, it comes from Opal, the female British reporter from the BBC. He usually solves this easily though by shooing her away. Haven is basically a phony and this fact coincides perfectly with how the managers (or lack thereof) of the Grand Ole Orpy pander to their audience with a word from their sponsor, which in this case comes in the form of Goo Goo Clusters (read here). The lyrics of it’s corny jingle go a little something like this – Go get a Goo Goo. It’s . . . good. Judging from the artificial farmhouse in the background and the red dress worn by Connie White, this Grand Ole Orpy concert subtly resembles that of a slightly pricier high school pageant. One character sums up my view best as he is commenting on Connie’s dress – last time I saw a dress like that, I was headin’ to the junior prom.
As far back as the year our country was founded (1776 in this case), American celebrities like Haven Hamilton have existed along with it. Nevertheless, for each decade that has passed following Nashville’s initial theatrical run in 1975, their existence seems to have only become more and more obvious since then. Regardless of where people like him lean politically (Right or Left), his behavior is typical to that of our politicians, superstar political pundits, religious preachers and Hollywood producers (among other elitists), who operate within our society. Though it is still extremely problematic, I personally see this as neither a good nor bad thing; it is just how the system works. Phony or not, they are still human like the rest of us.
Satirical comedy aside, Nashville is at heart, a social commentary on the cult of celebrity amid an era of chaos and confusion. While the 1973 Case-Church Amendment (read here) may have ended further U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War, which had officially concluded close to a month before the film’s initial theatrical release in 1975 (read here), the political and social turmoil that shaped the then past 12 years was still fresh in the minds of every single American citizen. As the decades have gone by, I would argue that nothing has really changed since then. Our hero worship of political leaders (American or otherwise) was bad enough, but when our target of adoration comes in the form of a popular entertainer, this practice can’t help but come off as slightly more pathetic by comparison. One only has to look at our unhealthy obsession with Elvis Presley (read here), The Beatles (read here) and Michael Jackson (read here) among many other celebrities, to understand my point. Now I adore Elvis, Michael and The Beatles just as much as the next person, but worshiping them as If they were deities, is just taking it way too far. In Nashville, this is exactly how the townspeople (or lack thereof) of that film’s title city treat celebrated country music icon Barbara Jean. Each and every one of her diehard fans worships her in different ways. For example, Pfc. Glenn Kelly is visiting the place to see Barbara Jean perform not only as an honor to his mother (a devotee), but for himself as well. He even sits on a chair in her hospital room until a female nurse notices his presence and hilariously tells her that he must have been in the wrong room. As for Albuquerque/Winifred and Sueleen Gay, they just want to sing at Hal Phillip Walker’s political rally with Barbara Jean, who is also performing with Tom Frank, Bill, Mary and (along with her choir) gospel singer Linnea Reese. Contrary to her public image, Barbara Jean’s personal one resembles that of an emotionally unstable woman. While hospitalized, Barbara Jean whines to her manager/husband Barnett about all of the pity she is receiving. At the same time, she implicitly expresses her insecurities concerning rival female country music singer Connie White, who is temporarily substituting for her at that Grand Ole Orpy concert. This is the scene that enables us viewers to see her as a human being instead of a goddess. Most importantly, all of this is revealed before the character of Barbara Jean sings not only for her dyed-in-the-wool admirers, but for the audience as well.
Not unlike certain other great films, Nashville’s unresolved ending can be interpreted in many ways. The climax in question comes in the form of the assassination of country singer Barbara Jean by loner Kenny Frasier. Why did he do it? Maybe he did it to even things out? After all, he was staying in a house owned by Mr. Green, whose teenage niece (Martha/L.A. Joan) kept getting distracted from visiting her sick Aunt Esther. In fact, Martha/L.A. Joan seemed more interested in hanging out with musicians than seeing her Aunt. Even worse, Martha/L.A. Joan seemingly did not attend the funeral for her Aunt, prompting an infuriated Mr. Green to bring her back so she can some respect to Esther. Kenny agrees to follow him to find her at the Parthenon. Coincidentally, Barbara Jean was released from the hospital on the same morning Mr. Green’s beloved wife died and shortly after hearing the bad news, Pfc. Glenn Kelly cheerily tells him the story about how his own mother saved Barbara Jean’s life; completely unaware of the tragedy that has just affected Mr. Green. Saddened by the pain that Mr. Green is recently feeling, Kenny decides to shoot Barbara Jean to deprive everybody of their happiness at the concert/political rally. In other words, he wants them to be sad as well.
Contrary to that first theory of mine, my next one blends the personal with the political. Even 5 years before the December 8, 1980 murder of renowned Beatles musician John Lennon (read here) at the hands of Mark David Chapman (read here), Nashville was already as relevant as ever during it’s initial theatrical release in 1975. Perhaps the most serious consequence of celebrity worship lies in it’s capability of attracting the wrong kind of person. A perfect example of this occurred 12 years earlier (coincidentally) on December 8, 1963 with the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. (read here); son of iconic American singer Frank Sinatra. The mastermind of this plot was Barry Keenan and even though he released him safely back to Ol’ Blue Eyes a few days later, the story behind it is so strange that even I can’t do justice in explaining it (read here). The character of Kenny Frasier comes off exactly as the kind of wrong person that I am talking about.
To borrow the words of wisdom from director Robert Altman himself (read here) – these people are not assassinated because of their ideas or what they do. They’re assassinated to draw attention to the assassin. To put it in other words, Kenny wants to achieve infamy by assassinating country singer Barbara Jean. Continuing on, Altman states that in political assassinations, in their sort of warped minds, they know that they are going to have a certain amount of people who said ‘that son of a bitch [the politician] should have been shot,’ because there’s such heat about it. But actually what they are doing is killing somebody who’s in the public eye and is some sort of an icon. Because this feeling that by, doing that, committing that assassination they draw the attention to themself, and they make themselves consequently important. This is the part of Altman’s theory where the personal is linked with the political. Barbara Jean may be performing at a rally for Replacement Party nominee Hal Philip Walker, but it is she (the entertainer) not he (the presidential candidate) who is assassinated. Though it is never made clear, Kenny may be a Hal Philip Walker supporter based on the sticker of him on his guitar case that he carries around (hard to make out though) and various other campaign material that can be found in his car. Unlike Barbara Jean, real life U.S. president John F. Kennedy was no entertainer, but similar to her, people seemed to lionize both he (read here and here) and his wife Jacqueline (read here and here). Believe it or not, prior to 1961, this kind of treatment for a politician was considered very unusual (read here). Needless to say, not unlike John F. Kennedy (read here), the fictionalized Barbara Jean is also a victim of assassination. As with celebrities, there are (or were) as many people who adore politicians as there are those that despise them (and plenty still do).
The motives of assassins can sometimes be made clear (Mark David Chapman), unclear (Lee Harvey Oswald) and a little bit of both (John Wilkes Booth and Sirhan Sirhan). With the exception of the patsy, we all know that a decision (or two) made by their intended targets is what may have incited Booth, Sirhan and Chapman to assassinate U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in 1865, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and Beatles musician John Lennon in 1980 respectively. Based on what I have observed, the character of Kenny Frasier seems not so much driven by a want to assassinate country singer Barbara Jean as he is by a need. Not once, but twice, we witness Kenny getting emotional while watching Barbara Jean perform. This comes in the form of two songs – Dues at Orpyland USA and My Idaho Home at the Parthenon. Kenny does not want to sacrifice her, but he must, because in his sick mind, he would be achieving “The American Dream.” And what does this debased version of “The American Dream” offer that is beneficial to Kenny? Nothing except infamy. Think about it. Shortly after Kenny emotes during Barbara Jean’s singing of My Idaho Home, a huge image of the American flag appears onscreen. Coincidentally, Kenny assassinates Barbara Jean at a rally for a presidential candidate and political activists are sometimes (or often) assassinated due to the assassin’s intense hatred of that particular person. Either that, or the assassin desires to be worshipped by rabid haters of that politician (or activist), who either can’t do it or are just not that crazy.
In the aftermath of country singer Barbara Jean’s assassination, a non-fatally wounded, but panicky Haven Hamilton tries to calm down the shocked audience with a reminder that this isn’t Dallas (read here) and continues with it’s Nashville! They can’t do this to us here in Nashville! Let’s show them what we’re made of. Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!. Haven randomly hands the microphone to Albuquerque/Winifred, who is able to unite the frantic audience with her rendition of Tom Frank’s It Don’t Worry Me. This reaction is a far cry from that of the then previous decade of the 1960’s, in which every new chaotic event that unfolded, arguably ended up dividing America more and more. Strange, considering that close (but not too close) before the unexpected climax, an uncredited song played in the background about some of the problems the United States was currently facing at the time. One example that was singled out was the 1972 Watergate scandal (read here) during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974). This scandal would lead to Nixon’s resignation two years later in 1974 (read here). Then again, maybe the past 12 years of American society had been turbulent enough, that (regardless of class) every American (as depicted here) came to the conclusion that there was nothing else left to do but unite. Though it has been reported from various sources that It Don’t Worry Me was written as a Nixon era protest song, I personally think that it’s message can be interpreted in different ways for the 21st century via the 2000’s and 2010’s respectively. The title itself can even be viewed as a philosophy closely or loosely linked to our reactions to recent events both at home and abroad. While this may be based more on emotion rather than on fact, the ordinary American may read about Brexit (read here) and It Don’t Worry Me would be his/her response If asked what he/she thinks. It Don’t Worry Me may even be the reaction from the average Brit concerning the 2018 U.S. midterm elections (read here). Nevertheless, this sentiment has been avoided as many (If not more) times as well. Unity is one way to sum up how Brits responded to the 2001 September 11th attacks in the United States (read here) and Americans with the 7 July 2005 London bombings in the United Kingdom (read here) to name just a few of many examples.
Theories aside, there is one other important major character in Nashville and that would be Replacement Party presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker. Even though the townspeople of Nashville are enthusiastic about him, the message of his campaign is consistently overlooked throughout the film. Whether his views are wacky or not, viewers have to admit that Walker makes several valid points. For example, he is often confronted with the statement, “I don’t want to get mixed up in politics.” Or, “I’m tired of politics.” Or, “I’m not interested.” Almost as often, someone says, “I can’t do anything about it anyway.” How does Walker remedy this? With these following two points. Let me point out two things. Number one: all of us are equally involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. And number two: we can do something about it. When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that’s politics. Also worthy is Walker’s take on lawyers – Who do you think is running Congress? Farmers? Engineers? Teachers? Businessmen? No, my friends. Congress is run by lawyers. A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only. To clarify – that’s one. And to confuse – that’s the other thing. He does whichever is to his client’s advantage. Did you ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he? Ever ask a lawyer how to get to Mr. Jones’ house in the country? You got lost, didn’t you? Congress is composed of five hundred and thirty-five individuals. Two hundred and eighty-eight are lawyers. And you wonder what’s wrong in Congress? No wonder we often know how to make a watch, but we don’t know – the time of day. Walker further elaborates on his view of lawyers by throwing the U.S. National Anthem into the mix – Nobody knows the words. Nobody can sing it. Nobody understands it. I suppose all the lawyers supported it because a lawyer wrote the words and a judge wrote the tune. Well, Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Maryland and Washington D.C. for four decades (read here), so Walker is correct on that part. However, he is wrong If he believes that British composer John Stafford Smith (read here) was a judge. But then again, that is part of what makes his views so odd to people like Mary – he’s a little crazy, isn’t he? To which Bill replies – well, they’re all a little crazy, Mary. As for this viewer, I think Walker’s outside political consultant John Triplette said it best concerning Bill’s reply to Mary – I’ll drink to that.
Undoubtedly, people like Hal Philip Walker have always existed within U.S. politics, but in the 43 years following Nashville’s original theatrical release in 1975, their popularity has only increased. Since at least the early 1990’s, populists as varied as Ross Perot (read here), Ralph Nader (read here), Ron Paul (read here) and Jill Stein (read here) have lost presidential elections, but at the same time, their ideas have arguably survived among a sizable number of Americans (ordinary and otherwise) across the nation. Populism played a major role in our 2016 United States presidential election with two populists as contenders – Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (read here) on the left and New York businessman/television personality Donald J. Trump (read here) on the right. The former ran as a Democrat and the latter ran as a Republican. Sanders may have lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Trump managed to not only win the Republican nomination (read here), but on November 8, 2016, he won the presidency as well (read here). On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as our 45th President of the United States. On the night of the November 6, 2018 United States midterm elections, populism was granted another victory in the form of Justice Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (read here), who will assume office on January 3, 2019 as the U.S. Representative-elect for New York’s 14th congressional district.
At least half the number of films on director Robert Altman’s resume are qualified ensemble pieces, but out of all of them, only Nashville and Short Cuts doubly qualify as epics. As with his other films, Nashville is driven less by it’s plot and more by it’s characters. For starters, Altman achieves this by encouraging his actors to improvise and last, but not least, he records the results and uses them for his finished product. A perfect example of this occurs in scenes involving Altman’s trademark use of overlapping dialogue. Major standout set pieces here include the aftermath of a multiple-vehicle collision and Haven Hamilton’s pre-show house party, which like the former, features many of the characters holding numerous discussions at once. Similar to how he stages the action during the nightclub sequences, Altman ingeniously cuts from one conversation scene to the next and the one after that and from there on, the process repeats itself.
Judging from it’s running time of 160 minutes alone, Nashville officially or unofficially comes off as a cinematic epic, whose status as such, lies not so much in it’s form as it does in it’s content. Thematically, Nashville is about many things all at once. Initially, it deals with the seemingly self-satisfying marriage between celebrity and politics as philosophized by country music superstar Haven Hamilton – You understand we give contributions to ever’body. And they are not puny contributions. In addition to that, Haven’s semi-alcoholic companion Lady Pearl reveals that the Only time she ever went hog-wild, around the bend, was for the Kennedy boys. But they were different. Pearl tearfully elaborates on her obsession with the two Kennedy brothers (John and Robert) to Opal later on at the Grand Ole Orpy – It’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Well, he, he took the whole South except for Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky. And there’s a reason he didn’t take Tennessee but he got 481,453 votes and the asshole got 556,577 votes. She is right about that (read here) and “the asshole” she was referring to, was obviously then recently former president Richard M. Nixon. Continuing on, Pearl states that Tennessee’s biggest problem lies in it’s anti-catholicism – These dumb-heads around here – they’re all Baptists and whatever, I don’t know. Even to teach ’em to make change over at the bar, you gotta crack their skulls, let alone to teach ’em to vote for the Catholic just because he happens to be the better man. Here is Pearl on the assassinations of both John (in 1963) and Robert F. Kennedy (in 1968) – All I remember, the next few days was us just lookin’ at that TV set and seein’ that great fat-bellied sheriff sayin’ ‘Ruby, you son of a bitch.’ And Oswald. And her in her little pink suit. – And then comes Bobby. Oh, I worked for him. I worked here, I worked all over the country, I worked out in California, out in Stockton. Well, Bobby came here and spoke and he went down to Memphis and then he even went out to Stockton California and spoke off the Santa Fe train at the old Santa Fe depot. Oh, he was a beautiful man. He was not much like John, you know. He was more puny-like. But all the time I was workin’ for him, I was just so scared – inside, you know, just scared. Pearl’s worst fears were confirmed when Robert was assassinated 7 years earlier. To top it off, Pearl has a portrait of John F. Kennedy hanging on the wall by the bar area inside the “Old Time Picking Parlor” – a country music nightclub that she owns. Aside from the Camelot Era (read here), Lady Pearl remains cynical about everything including politics itself.
When it is not touching upon themes related to celebrity and politics, Nashville is occasionally about the relationship between the natives and visitors in Tennessee. For example, visiting singer Tom Frank seems to be disgusted with politicians altogether when being offered a Hal Philip Walker pamphlet – I don’t vote for nobody. His justified anger quite possibly stems from America’s involvement in the Vietnam War based on his still inexcusable remark of How you doin’, Sarge? You kill anybody this week? to veteran Pfc. Glenn Kelly. Later on at Lady Pearl’s “Old Time Picking Parlor”, a drunken Wade Cooley insults musician Tommy Brown by referring to him as the whitest African-American (not his word, mine) in town! That marshmallow, he oughta drink some of that milk. It fits his personality! The shallowness of teenager Martha/L.A. Joan baffles the elderly Mr. Green (her uncle) at first – She’s from California – to annoyance when she does not attend her Aunt Esther’s funeral – as I mentioned earlier, he walks out during the service to get Martha/L.A. Joan to show some respect to Esther.
In addition to all of the above, Nashville also works as an insightful and poignant story about two female aspiring country singers – one who makes it (Albuquerque/Winifred) and the other who does not (Sueleen Gay). As for Sueleen Gay, her singing draws a crowd of boos while performing at both “Deemen’s Den” and later on, a bar serving as a fundraiser for Replacement Party candidate Hal Philip Walker. In the case of the latter, Sueleen is jeered at because her all-male patrons are only there to see her get completely nude. Upset by the negative reception of her singing, lawyer Del Reese and political consultant John Triplette reassures Sueleen that all she simply needs to do is to strip totally naked for her audience and that is all. Disillusioned that she was not hired for her singing skills, Sueleen reluctantly performs the striptease much to the satisfaction of her all-male customers. To paraphrase Del, it is true that Sueleen can’t sing a lick, but at the same time, we find ourselves sympathizing for her when she personally feels debased. On the contrary, Albuquer-que/Winifred finally gets her big break (more on that later) after suffering many setbacks earlier on. One of them came in the form of her being denied entry inside the Grand Ole Orpy. At other times, Nashville briefly touches upon struggling marital relations. The first comes in the form of Del and Linnea Reese and the other between insecure country music sweetheart Barbara Jean and her long-suffering manager husband Barnett. On the side, we get little moments from minor characters like Bud Hamilton and Norman (Bill, Mary and Tom’s chauffeur), who both try to impress female BBC reporter Opal to no avail. Bud tries to wow her with a song, but she gets sidetracked (not to mention excited) by actor Elliot Gould’s appearance (he plays himself here) at Haven’s pre-show party. Norman tries to interest her a tour of other areas around Tennessee, but she declines the offer; implicitly due to a lack of interest.
According to director Robert Altman, the character of zany BBC News reporter Opal serves as the film’s connective tissue (read here); when it comes to introducing us viewers to the film’s large cast of characters. As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Nashville myself, I agree completely. Right or wrong, her analogies are truly hilarious. While walking through a parking lot of school busses – The buses! The buses are empty and look almost menacing, threatening, as so many yellow dragons watching me with their hollow, vacant eyes. I wonder how many little black and white children have yellow nightmares, their own special brand of fear for the yellow peril… Damn it, it’s got to be more… positive. No, more negative! Start again. Yellow is the color of caution. No. Yellow is the color of cowardice. Yellow is the color of sunshine. And yet I see very little sunshine in the lives of all the little black and white children. I see their lives, rather, as a study in grayness, a mixture of black and… Oh, Christ, no. That’s fascist. Yellow! Yellow, yellow, yellow. Yellow fever. While walking through a junkyard – I’m wandering in a graveyard. The dead here have no crosses, nor tombstones, nor wreaths to sing of their past glory, but lie in rotting, decaying, rusty heaps, their innards ripped out by greedy, vulturous hands. Their vast, vacant skeletons… sadly sighing to the sky. The rust on their bodies… is the color of dried blood. Dried blood. I’m reminded of… of an elephant’s secret burial ground. Yes. Cette aire de mystère. Cette essence de I’irréel. These cars are trying to communicate. O cars, are you trying to tell me something? Are you trying to convey to me some secret. During the multiple-vehicle collision – I need something like this for my documentary. I need it. It’s… It’s America. Those cars smashing into each other… and all those mangled corpses. On Haven Hamilton’s country house – This is Bergman. Pure, unadulterated Bergman. Of course, the people are all wrong for Bergman, aren’t they? After waking up from a one night stand with musician Tom Frank – God, I thought I was in Israel. I don’t know why. Certainly not the decor, was it? Must have been dreaming. I was there for about a year on a kibbutz. I was feeling very romantic about that kind of socialism at the time. I thought I’d like to have a bash at it. On Black Gospel Choirs – Look at that! That rhythm is fantastic. You know, it’s funny, you can tell, it come down in the genes, through ages and ages and hundreds of years, but it’s there! And take off those robes and one is in… in… in darkest Africa. I can just see their – naked, frenzied bodies, dancing to the beat of – Do they carry on like that in church? Even funnier is Bud Hamilton’s response to her question – Depends on which church you go to. Nevertheless, one opinion of hers is bound to strike a serious debate – I have a theory about political assassination. You see, I believe that people like Madame Pearl and all these people here, in this country, who carry guns, are the real assassins. Because, you see, they stimulate other people who, are perhaps innocent, and who eventually are the ones who pull the trigger. Whether it was improvised on the actor’s part or not, a significant portion of credit still belongs to the film’s screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who made all of this dialogue possible through her multilayered original screenplay.
Similar to many other films that use music as it’s subject matter, director Robert Altman’s Nashville is not so much a pure musical as it is a spiritual one. For example, whenever any of the characters burst into song, it comes off as anything but spontaneous. To put it in other words, the original songs here are presented in a manner akin to that of a live concert show. Regardless, each and every one of them are performed with gusto. What makes it even better is that some (If not all) of the songs were written by the actors performing them. With the exception of One, I Love You (her duet with Henry Gibson) and Bluebird (written, but not performed by her), actress Ronee Blakley sang and wrote all of her character’s songs. Two of her three songs focus on love relationships in different ways. Whereas. the upbeat Tapedeck in His Tractor covers the positive aspects of it, the heartbreaking Dues deals with one hitting rock bottom. Her character of country singer Barbara Jean climaxes with the poignant My Idaho Home and considering that this is where Blakley actually hails from (read here), it would be interesting to know whether or not this song was intended to be slightly autobiographical at the very least. Timothy Brown’s singing of Bluebird may be the work of a singer-for-hire, but one would never guess it judging from the high level of enthusiasm he puts into it. When viewers take into account the grade school pageant-like stage background that musician Tommy Brown (his character) is performing it on however at the Grand Ole Orpy, we discover that this is by design. To paraphrase the title of a song by country singer Wynn Stewart – Another Day, Another Dollar (read here). The character of country music superstar Haven Hamilton (as played by Gibson) performs two of his three songs there also – For the Sake of the Children (written by Richard Baskin and Richard Reicheg) and Keep-A-Goin (written by Baskin). As for 200 Years (written by both Baskin and Gibson), Haven sang that earlier near the beginning in a recording studio. The first two songs are about the importance of upholding marital fidelity and remaining optimistic at all costs. In the case of the third song, that one is about blindly supporting every single decision made by our U.S. politicians down in Washington D.C. or elsewhere. Haven may preach morality, optimism and patriotism in his songs, but behind closed doors, he is only human and nothing more. As with Ronee Blakley, actress Karen Black wrote and performed her own songs as well and appropriately enough, her character of Connie White serves as Barbara Jean’s onstage (and maybe even offstage) rival. Whereas Memphis centers around one’s desire for confidence and stability, Black takes a proverb (rolling stone gathers no moss) and uses it as the main metaphor for her succeeding song entitled Rolling Stone. Even though she shares the same stage as Haven Hamilton and Tommy Brown, Connie White’s songs, in contrast, actually come off as deeply personal whether she is performing in front of an artificial background (as with Memphis) or not (as with Rolling Stone). Aside from Since You’ve Gone (written by Gary Busey), in which he performed alongside Allan F. Nicholls and Cristina Raines, actor Keith Carradine wrote and sang his own songs for the film. I’m Easy won him the Oscar for Best Original Song and in the film, musician Tom Frank (his character) uses it to serenade Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) during a scene taking place at a music club. Out of all the women Tom has slept with, she seems to be his favorite considering that he called her on the phone twice earlier in the film. The opening lyric of it’s not my way to love you just when no one’s looking arguably confirms this. Though viewers can hear snippets of Carradine singing It Don’t Worry Me early on in the film, it is actress Barbara Harris, who gets to perform a rendition of it for the film’s showstopper of a finale. Taking into account that Albuquerque’s/Winifred’s (her character) ambition was to become a country singer, it only makes perfect sense that this unofficial anthem of unity, would coincidentally, also serve as her breakthrough.
Each and every one of director Robert Altman’s 1970’s films are masterpieces, but If I were allowed to single out only three of them from that period, I would choose McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and this one, which is Nashville. In addition to that, I personally believe that Nashville is the number one greatest film of that aforementioned decade. If I may go one step even further, I would also place Nashville somewhere between numbers 1 and 5 on my still unpublished blog entry of the 100 (or more) best films ever made according to me. Director D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance did for Silent American cinema in 1916, what Altman’s Nashville does for New Hollywood era filmmaking. To put it in other words, it serves as a prime example of it’s type.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
Julie Christie as herself
Vassar Clements as himself
Elliott Gould as himself
Howard K. Smith as himself
-Possible Real Life Connections-
– Henry Gibson’s character of Haven Hamilton may be a composite of Roy Acuff, Hank Snow and Peter Wagoner (read here, here, here and here).
– Ronee Blakley’s character of Barbara Jean may be loosely based on Loretta Lynn (read here and here).
– Timothy Brown’s character of Tommy Brown may be loosely based on Charley Pride (read here and here).
– The working relationship between Allan F. Nicholls character of Bill, Christina Haines character of Mary and Keith Carradine’s character of Tom Frank may be loosely based on that of Peter, Paul and Mary (read here and here).
– The married couple of Bill and Mary may bear a loose resemblance to that of Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert of later day Starland Vocal Band fame (read here and here).
– Tom Frank may be loosely based on Kris Kristofferson (read here and here).
– Karen Black’s character of Connie White may be loosely based on Lynn Anderson (read here and here).
A head’s up from Mitchell of The Discreet Bourgeoisie for implicitly giving me the idea to remind one about Jan Stuart’s widely read (at least by film fanatics) book about the making of this 70’s classic entitled The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece (read here).
Here is a link to the title sequence I was elaborating on above:
Here is a link to the original theatrical trailer below: