Nashville isn’t overlong, tepid or even difficult in any way, yet watching it feels like an achievement. This is because Robert Altman, a huge annoyance to the Hollywood system, loved his country, but he also knew it very well. His 1975 masterpiece therefore sees him exposing, challenging, even mocking the United States of America while ultimately resounding with the notion expounded in the movie’s opening musical number: “We must be doing something right to last 200 years.”
By using the city of Nashville as a microcosm, he builds an image of a country where traditions once existed yet were bulldozed to make room for new ones, ones that people cling to as if they were ancient birthrights. Nearly every moment of the film is thus soundtracked by country music, as befits the setting, and it is usually played live. There is no one character who serves to encapsulate Altman’s vision of America – that would be too limiting – but rather there’s twenty four of them, all of whom are defective or unfortunate in some way, and are all interlinked whether they know it or not.
These range from lower level performers and general nobodies to successful musicians and connected businessmen. Jeff Goldblum also stars as a silent man riding around Nashville on a ridiculous trike performing magic tricks, because of course he does. Either way, every single role is portrayed with such a natural flair, and combined with the impersonal cinematography, it feels as though you’re watching regular people unaware that a camera’s even in their presence.
To emphasise this, Altman brings to fruition a technique he nurtured over M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs. Miller – that is the creation of a bustling environment full of characters talking over one other, with multiple intelligible conversations occurring at once. As such, characters never really enter the scene; the camera just seems to stumble upon them, as though the crew were filming scenery and the same people kept getting in the way.
There are a number of set-pieces that throw many of the characters together, from the freeway pile-up to the climactic Parthenon concert at the end, and in each one, more and more is revealed as different characters meet and interact. Each of them could have essays written about them; it’d take numerous pages to detail all of their quirks, mannerisms and, usually, glaring weaknesses.
That Altman manages to keep track of so many, as well as giving them so much flourish while maintaining such a strong rhythm and structure, is the stuff of mastery. There is never once a hiccup in the pace, unlike his similar later movie Short Cuts, which often felt as though it was capsizing, and occasionally dragged as a result. Over 160 minutes, Nashville hammers forward with a spring in its step. The movie is thus emblematic of the crazy 70s in that it’s simultaneously laid-back, high-wired, and all-encompassing, almost like a film version of Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, marrying the atmosphere of Woodstock with the fatalism of The Conversation, by way of several whiskey shots and a countdown to extinction.
Not only because presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker is constantly mentioned, but there is a heavy political shadow over the film without any real views on the matter. Distrust towards the government is a common sentiment (obviously – this was 1975 after all), and the JFK assassination still looms like a storm cloud over the pomposity of the movie’s events. It satirises celebrity culture to a strong degree, with country singers providing guest appearances in church, as well as Geraldine Chaplin’s BBC reporter fussing excitedly over musicians and movie stars. Elliott Gould and Julie Christie make cameo appearances as themselves, distracting everyone in the scene from what they were previously doing, and an attractive singer uses his status to lure so many girls into bed that when he dedicates a new song to “a special someone,” four different women in the room think it’s about them.
Nashville has been semi-forgotten as of late. For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to get hold of it, which is why I’m thankful to Masters of Cinema for re-releasing it this week. It’s god-tier cinema, revelatory whether you look at it from a technical standpoint, in review of performances, as a study of American society or simply as great entertainment.
Nashville was directed by Robert Altman, written by Joan Tewkesbury and stars Ned Beatty, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Henry Gibson, Michael Murphy and Lily Tomlin. It lasts for 160 minutes and is a production of ABC Entertainment. Distributed in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema. Originally released in 1975.