#289) Nashville (1975)

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#289) Nashville (1975)

OR “Can’t Stop the Music City”

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Joan Tewkesbury

Class of 1992

The Plot: The country music capital of the world gets the Altman treatment as Nashville is portrayed through his trademark extended zoom shots and overlapping dialogue. 24 separate storylines weave in and out of each other, all centered on the town’s country stars and wannabes gearing up for a performance at a political rally. Among the ensemble are Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), BBC reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), the talented yet extremely vulnerable Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), womanizing folk singer Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), lawyer Del Reese (Ned Beatty), his neglected wife Linnea (Lily Tomlin), and aspiring singer Winifred (Barbara Harris). All this, plus Jeff Goldblum as The Tricycle Man.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “funny and poignant series of vignettes” and praises the film’s “ability to be sarcastic, hopeful, and revelatory all at once”. A handful of performers, as well as the song “I’m Easy”, also get a shoutout. An essay by film critic David Sterritt puts “Nashville” in its contextual place in Altman’s filmography.

But Does It Really?: Having now watched all three of Robert Altman’s NFR entries (and several of his non-entries) I can conclusively say that I respect Altman’s films more than I enjoy them. There’s nothing wrong with his movies, they’ve just never done it for me, yet I keep coming back for more. Altman is truly one of the unique visionaries of film, and even when I wasn’t fully engaged with “Nashville”, I admired its fly-on-the-wall unfolding of the organized chaos that is life. While the meandering pace of “Nashville” is a bit slow by today’s standards, there are enough dynamic characters and performances to hold your interest. Altman is one-of-a-kind, and “Nashville” is the apex of a film career that will never be replicated. I give “Nashville” a pass on the historical and artistic fronts, but I do so more as an admirer than as a fan.

Shout Outs: Quick references to “The Wizard of Oz” and “Easy Rider”.

Everybody Gets One: Writer Joan Tewkesbury (a longtime Altman script collaborator), cinematographer Paul Lohmann, and most of the cast, including: Ronee Blakley, Geraldine Chaplin, Barbara Harris and Lily Tomlin.

Wow, That’s Dated: Many of the characters are inspired by such then-current country or folk singers as Roy Acuff, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Lynn Anderson, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Throw in a Bicentennial reference and the abomination that is white afros and you got yourself 1975.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Nashville” initially received very high critical praise that was immediately followed by backlash (the word “overrated” was thrown around a lot). This, mixed with good-but-not-great box office and Altman’s outsider status in Hollywood, led to “Nashville” only receiving five Oscar nominations, albeit in major categories. The film lost Picture and Director to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, while Ronee Blakely and Lily Tomlin split the Best Supporting Actress vote in favor of overdue veteran Lee Grant for “Shampoo”. “Nashville” did, however, win Best Original Song for Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy”.

Other notes

  • Altman loves his fourth-wall breaking. The opening credits present the movie as a late-night commercial for an album by the cast, which actually sets up the whole movie quite well.
  • The lynchpin of the movie is the campaign of Hal Phillip Walker for the Replacement Party. We never see him, but he is voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips; novelist and producer of Altman’s “Thieves Like Us”.
  • Just a reminder that this film has two stars from “Laugh-In”. Both Henry Gibson and Lily Tomlin excel at flexing their hereto-unknown dramatic muscles.
  • Very interesting that one of the characters is a documentarian, and a potential imposter. Even Altman’s characters blur the line between reality and fiction. Geraldine Chaplin is just perfect in the role, and helped turn the Chaplin family into an acting dynasty.
  • So Jeff Goldblum has always been quirky on film? Fun Fact: Goldblum has two movies on the AFI Top 100, and only one line.
  • Car crashes! That’s what Altman’s movies are missing! For a second I thought Hal Needham guest directed the car pile-up.
  • I love Barbara Harris, but that accent is all over the place. Harris was dissatisfied with her performance and offered to pay for re-shoots. Altman refused.
  • Kenny Frasier looks like Stephen King. Unfortunately the ending of his subplot is tipped a little too early.
  • Surprise guest stars/former Altman leads Elliott Gould and Julie Christie! Apparently both actors happened to be in Nashville during production.
  • In true Altman authenticity, the actors wrote their own songs. Ronee Blakely had contributed several songs before being cast in the film last-minute. Tomlin, Carradine, and Gibson also helped pen a few songs, but special mention to Karen Black, who wrote a country song that sounds like the real thing.
  • When Lady Pearl talks about her affection for the Kennedys, she mentions Robert Kennedy taking his presidential campaign to Stockton, California. That’s absolutely true: Robert Kennedy stumped in my hometown by train just six days before his assassination.
  • “Since You’ve Gone” (the song performed by Bill, Mary, and Tom) was written by…Gary Busey? How did he get mixed up in all of this?
  • I can see why “I’m Easy” is a highlight: it’s the only song that comes from an emotional place for the character and comments on those emotions. You earn that Oscar, Carradine! The song also simultaneously advances the development of five characters, culminating with the slow close-up on Lily Tomlin.
  • “It Don’t Worry Me” is a good finale, if Altman movies are allowed to have finales. Another winner from Keith Carradine. Side Note: Did anyone else notice that the final camera move is a bit jerky?
  • For the record: Nashville hated “Nashville”. Altman believed that their local talent didn’t appreciate being passed over for the film in favor of Hollywood people.

Legacy

  • “Nashville” was Altman at his peak. His immediate follow-up was the somewhat muddled “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”, and while “3 Women” and “A Wedding” are not without their supporters, Altman would have to wait until 1992’s “The Player” to make a comeback.
  • In an unfortunate connection, some cited “Nashville” as one of the films that may have inspired Mark David Chapman to assassinate John Lennon.
  • Altman’s swan song was a return to country music, as well as many of the same themes from “Nashville”: “A Prairie Home Companion”.

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