Nashville was Robert Altman’s defining film of the seventies, the moment when the precocious talent behind M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and California Split showed exactly what he could do with a lengthy running time and a large collection of characters. If the film seems a little less radical 30 years on, it’s only because some of the themes remain rooted in the era and Altman continued to refine his technique in subsequent films. Otherwise, the film remains a brilliant, complex study of character and national mood.
As the title suggests, the setting is Nashville, Tennessee, home of country and western. It’s also the latest stop-off for the political campaign of Hal Phillip Walker, the mysterious, surprise independent candidate in the Presidential primaries who is poised to win the state. So the film follows 24 assorted musicians, political types and regular folk over five days of music and campaigning, their lives interweaving and subtlety impacting upon one another. Altman doesn’t like to give his characters big entrances, and with no single storyline to establish it takes a little time to get into the rhythm of the film. The term ‘Altman-esque’ is often used for ensemble directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, but really, no one makes movies like the man himself. Altman’s camera is there to observe and rarely to judge, and things happen in lengthy, medium takes – if you didn’t catch a line of dialogue, well, tough luck – but it won’t hinder your enjoyment.
A traffic jam on the freeway from the airport into town allows us to meet most of the protagonists. There’s Tom (Keith Carradine), the womanising folk-rocker in town to record and track down Linnea (Lily Tomlin), a gospel singer he met some months earlier. Linnea is married to Delbert (Ned Beatty), a local businessman helping Walker’s campaign man John Triplette (Michael Murphy) organise a promotional concert. Elsewhere, Henry Gibson plays the city’s biggest singing star and biggest ego, Ronee Blakley is a visiting singer who collapses upon arrival and is hospitalised, while David Arkin plays an ageing man whose wife is dying in the same hospital while his visiting niece (Shelley Duvall) hangs out with the musicians in town.
Inevitably some characters and stories are given more space than others, and although the film was scripted by journalist Joan Tewkesbury, much of the dialogue and background action is clearly the result of improvisation. Nashville is often extremely funny, and Altman has an uncanny ability to mix the comic with the dramatic, often in the same scene. There’s a wonderful moment when Tom sings a passionate, affecting love song in a bar, and four different women in attendance presume he’s singing for them (the true recipient of this ode being Linnea, the only one he’s yet to sleep with). And the hilarity produced by the sight of bimbo waitress Sueleen (Gwen Welles) crooning tunelessly at a fund-raising gig quickly disappears when she is forced to strip in front of the baying businessmen present; likewise Blakley’s on-stage breakdown begins funny but quickly strays into the realms of deeply uncomfortable.
The performances are uniformly superb, but there are some real standouts. Lily Tomlin (then better known as a comedienne) is incredibly empathetic as a loving wife and mother who nevertheless is lured into temptation by the handsome rocker who lavishes her with the sexual attention she no longer gets at home. And the best comic performance is supplied by Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a pretentious, overbearing BBC reporter in town to record a documentary, her pushy style leading to an endless stream of hilarious gaffs and bemused looks. As for the music, Altman eschews country standards for an entirely original score composed and performed by the cast – the director gives considerable space to the music, running songs in their entirety and never cutting away from them just to get on with things.
There is also a political agenda here, although it is not overt. Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign prides itself on rejecting everything the two main parties hold dear – the national anthem, the idea of lawyers serving in the senate – but in the end his party is no different. John Triplette is as slick and two-faced as any other campaign manager, and the climatic concert takes place before a huge American flag, as the crowds gathered soak up the image and the music, but not the message. And although Altman clearly respects the musical legacy of the city, he is also very aware of the clichés and prejudices of country and western. Triplette describes it as "redneck", and popular black singer Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) is called "the whitest nigger in town" by short order cook Wade (Robert DoQui), who feels Brown has betrayed their roots and sold out to the whitest of all music scenes.
Most of the story strands are left unresolved, but Nashville does climax with a ‘big’ event – an attempted assassination – that allows Altman to end on a bittersweet, nicely ironic payoff. There’s a lot to take in, but Nashville starts off great and gets even better on repeated viewings – a true American classic. Watch for amusing cameos from Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, playing themselves.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.