Sean Reviews Robert Altman’s Nashville [Blu-ray Review]

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What more is there to say about Robert Altman’s 1975 magnum opus Nashville? I mean really, it’s been held as a benchmark of not only 1970s cinema but American cinema as a whole since its release, and before the movie even came out it had critical luminaries like the one-and-only Pauline Kael throwing platitudes left and right at it from her review’s first paragraph with whoppers like “I’ve never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way: I sat there smiling at the screen, in complete happiness. It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over; you take it with you.” As hyperbolic as that seems it’s an appropriately excessive statement for a fittingly excessive movie—that has twenty-four main characters and a nebulous-at-best plot, mind you—and one that I happen to pretty much agree with. Nashville is the type of movie that covers you like some sort of a cinematic blanket, never smothering you or your emotions but swaddling them enough in its grasp until it pulls itself knowingly away from you in its jarring grand finale. It is a singular film from a singular director, and it has finally taken its rightful place in the Criterion Collection.

Among the numerous things Criterion has done so well is distill certain movements or themes together, unofficially whittling its hundreds of titles down into clickable categories on its website like Amour Fou, French New Wave, Yakuza!, Cult Movies, or Classic Hollywood. But the theme I personally veered towards most was their New American Cinema category, a group comprised of twenty-two films—so far—that in their words came as a “shock to the system” and consist of auteur-driven films “influenced by the foreign art cinema that was in vogue as well as the avant-garde and documentary techniques” of the mid-sixties into the seventies. There is the uncompromising domesticity of John CassavetesA Woman Under the Influence, the self-destructive composure of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, the nascent American mythology of Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven, the anarchic political plunge of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, and the pièce de résistance of the counterculture that is Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. But the one movie that outright has it all is Nashville, Altman’s panoptically populist commentary about America and all its facets from religion, to culture, to celebrity, to politics, to music, and much more.

The music is the foundational framework of the movie, making itself obviously important from the standpoint of its Music City setting, but to hear of the making of the film it seems like something more akin to happenstance than substance. Altman latched on to the idea for the film because a movie studio wanted to make a film about country music—in a starring vehicle for Tom Jones, bizarrely enough—in order to sell some records. Altman didn’t care about country music and he threw away the original idea for a more expanded approach to ensemble and sound design techniques he previous tested out in 1970’s MASH and 1974’s California Split. Along with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury—whose own Altman-appointed trips to the city of Nashville served as inspiration for some of the film’s most memorable story beats—the two created a sprawling tapestry of a big city with a small town feel where characters would keep running into each other or simply cross paths only to surface again later on. A multi-track sound system would allow individual microphones to be placed on the actors encompassing Altman’s lingering cinematic tableaux to allow both an overlapping verisimilitude of sound and spontaneity but also for the actors to be free to move within a space as if on a citywide stage.

Occasionally those characters would break into songs written by the actors themselves, and while Nashville is ostensibly a musical it is not a traditional one. The characters, like Henry Gibson as the reigning king of country music Haven Hamilton or the inimitable Karen Black as the glamorous Connie White, would perform their songs within the context of the film at locations like the famous Grand Ole Opry or smaller Nashville clubs like the Exit/In. There has been some recent and leftover backlash against the songs themselves. Allegedly country music fans and Nashville residents alike believed Altman was making fun of the scene itself, and yet I find it an unmistakably earnest and self-referential look at such an environment composed of a bevy of performers who are both good and bad on purpose. When Gibson marches onstage and sings the corny bumpkin tune “Keep-A-Goin” it obviously isn’t supposed to be Mozart, but instead it’s presented as an apt reflection of the character’s modest roots that shot him into stardom. Nowhere is this interwoven thematic and musical approach better served than in a scene where Keith Carradine’s egomaniacal folk-singer Tom Frank strums his acoustic song “I’m Easy”—which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song—to a room full of solemnly indulgent women played by Shelley Duvall, Geraldine Chaplin, Cristina Raines, and Lily Tomlin who all think he’s singing the subtly heart-wrenching song to them.

Though all credit is due to the editing, the main point is that the ensemble is absolutely fantastic and the film adequately gets across the near-miracle of having the audience care about—not to mention simply recognize—the two dozen main characters as distinct and completely written people. Despite the fact that the actors are wonderful across the board, I’d almost like to challenge someone to name another movie with a better-embodied ensemble of actresses. Seriously, I’d like to see you try, because the answer is that the actresses assembled here are utterly brilliant and second-to-none. Tomlin’s turn as an apprehensive mother of two deaf children pulled back into a potential fling with Carradine is subdued yet strong, and Chaplin’s spunky innocence as an alleged BBC reporter is sometimes reminiscent of the firecracker-pace of her father. Gwen Welles as the unfortunately talentless waitress-turned-singer who gives up her dignity for a make-or-break chance is as heartbreaking as it is lightly cringeworthy, and Duvall as the full-on psychedelic groupie who changes her name to LA Joan is a curiously enigmatic oddity. I think the best actress, however, is real life singer Ronee Blakely as the beloved country darling Barbara Jean who goes through a distressing mental collapse and is the focal point of the film’s tragic final scene. Blakely’s loving smile undercuts her inner turmoil as a performer stretched too far, and Blakely’s own performance during the film’s famous breakdown scene shot against a venue made out of a docked paddle steamer shows how focused and thoroughly perfect she truly is.

Criterion has put out a moderately-packed dual format edition that is anchored by a new hour-long documentary about the making of the film. Though Altman passed away in 2006, a handful of the film’s players offer some really great personal anecdotes in the doc about the making of the film and Altman himself, and Tewkesbury and assistant director Alan Rudolph get down to the interesting nuts and bolts of just how this enormously unorthodox epic was made. I particularly liked Tewkesbury’s metaphorical defense of the overall film against its country music detractors because she manages to definitively boil down a very difficult point about a very complex film. The set isn’t completely devoid of Altman as there are a trio of interviews with the director from 1975, 2000, and 2002 which highlight his personal goals with the film and get at how Altman himself reigns over the auteurist theory despite his own hesitations about his place in it and what it even means. The Altman commentary included here is carted over from a previous, non-Criterion release and admittedly gets redundant at times, and over the film’s 160-minute runtime it can be a bit much. Yet when Altman finds a particular nugget of personal involvement or insight the track truly shines, but they come few and far between. Carradine’s demos are pleasant but are lacking without the full context of the film, and I absolutely love the trailer’s full-kitsch embrace of the ensemble, especially the tagline that the film is “The darndest thing you ever saw.”

Nashville is a gigantic film, unmatched in its woven scope perhaps until director Paul Thomas Anderson attempted a similarly vast, appropriately Altman-esque character study tragedy with 1999’s Magnolia (which, for what it’s worth, I would love to see in the Criterion Collection as well). It is comprised of all the characteristics of an entire cinematic movement wrapped into one totally unique package, and is a benchmark in American film. Though Altman’s career went on for another three decades with many hits and misses in between, Nashville is his towering monument and a cross section of America as it was, how it can be, and how it will be.