Nashville (1975): Altman’s Ensemble-Driven Epic about Intersection of Politics and Showbusinee

Representing the director at the peak of his faculties, Robert Altman’s Nashville is one of the best American movies of the 1970s and one of the most complexly constructed narratives, researched and written by Joan Tewksbury.

An experimental film (by mainstream standards), “Nashiville” perfected the strategies and techniques Altman had pioneered in “M*A*S*H,” (Altman’s biggest commercial hit to date), specifically, a large ensemble, a multi-layered text, overlapping dialogue, and improvisational acting.

It also features new devices, such as songs written by the actors and sung by them, through which they express their ideas and feelings, and sometime propel the very loose narrative.

In essence, Nashville was an ensemble-driven epic, focusing on the intersection of politics and music (or showbusiness in general), and the rising of random and senseless violence, then novel themes that would be explored in the future movies by other directors.

“Nashville” introduced a type of political rally-party that later became common in other American films. In this ironic piece of Americana, targeted at the Bicentennial–the movie was released in 1974–Altman serves up a pageantry of sex, violence, music, religion, fame, and politics, and how all of these elements (and institutions) are intricately interwoven to some inevitably comic, tragic and ironic consequences.

In its innovative form of storytelling, the film treads many seemingly isolated tales in and out of each other. Gradually, five or so subplots emerged as the central ones, all intertwined in a jigsaw puzzle form.

With its broad canvas, “Nashville” examines two uniquely institutions: the country music industry in “Nashville” and the new American political process in the post-Nixon era. Indeed, the movie is a revelatory expression of piety and patriotism among both the visible pop music elite and the unseen presidential candidate, both of which devoid of roots and meaning.

Sprawling over two and a half hours but never flagging, it successfully introduces and exposes 24 different characters, brilliantly critiquing the country music industry as a microcosm of American society.

There is a famous and powerful display of vacuity, tarts shared by “little people” who adore them and want desperately to succeed in Nashville. Each of the characters is manipulatively ambitious and self-absorbed. They form what could be described as a non-community of exploitative, isolated, self-seeking individuals.

Two of the central figures include a music queen (Ronee Blakley) and a politician, both of whom share the same fate of destruction. The film as a whole is as obtrusively concerned with the anti-ethos of Watergate as with the country-music racket.

One of the film’s most emotionally sub-stories involves a triangle, composed of Lily Tomlin as a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children, Ned Beatty as her neglectful husband who can’t come to terms with the problem of his children, and Keith Carradine as the womanizing rock star who sleeps with Tomlin (and other women).

The epic saga takes place on one climactic weekend in the Country Music Capital of America. A huge music festival is taking place in Nashville, and at the same time a political rally is slated to promote the candidacy of the never-seen presidential hopeful Hal Phillip Walker, who leads a new entity known as the Replacement Party.

Though Walker’s politics are not deeply plumbed, he sounds vaguely like George Wallace, when he was running on his third-party ticket. Walker’s aides, Michael Murphy and Ned Beatty, know what kind of people the candidate appeals to, and they prevail upon several of the top country music singers to help their cause.

Henry Gibson, a vet performer patterned after Hank Snow, is the eminence grise, the unctuously hypocritical “Grand Ole Opry” star, who most of the younger performers adore and try to emulate.

Other interesting characters include: Barbara Harris, as an aspirant to country music stardom, and Gwen Welles, as an ungifted singer who, after being booed off stage, is forced to become a stripper.

Space precludes me detailing all the stories, or even mention all the members of the illustrious cast, which includes Altman (and Allan Rudolph) regulars, such as Shelley Duvall and Geraldine Chaplin, and cameos by Elliott Gould, Julie Christie, the very young Jeff Goldblum and Scott Glenn, and vets like Allen Garfield and Keenan Wynn.

Altman cuts back and forth between the characters with such smooth expertise that the audience never loses track of the individual stories and narrative as a whole, which emerges at the end as a coherent work.

Nashville’s songs, many of them written by the actors, are more integral to the storyline than is usually the case. The test of the film’s greatness is that even people who don’t like country music are overwhelmed by its impact.

And a word about the ambiguous tone of the film, with Altman refusing to offer clear messages or easy solutions that would make viewers feel more comfort.  This is manifest in the last scene, when the crowd sings, in the wake of a tragedy: “It don’t worry me/ It don’t worry me. You may say I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me.”

Was Altman targeting American’s political apathy, false stoicism, ability to deal with disasters and then move one–until the next one strikes?  Perhaps all of the above, as Altman deliberately refuses to provide easy answers for the audience.

The New Yorker Pauline Kael’s most (in)famous critical ploy was her “preview” of Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, which she wrote before the final version was ready.  Some regarded her loyalty to Altman as no more than extension of the publicity machine.  Kael’s review was used for the movie’s publicity and promotion in the same way that United Artists had reprinted her review of Brando’s Last Tango in Paris in its entirety, back in 1973.

This piece so infuriated Vincent Canby that he devoted a whole film view at the Sunday New York Times (March 9, 1975) to his thoughts on the practice, calling it “On Reviewing Films before They’re Finished.”  “If one can review a film on the basis of an approximately three-hour rough-cut, why not review it on the basis of a five hour rough-cut? A ten-hour cut?  On the basis of the screenplay?  The original material if first printed as a book? On the basis of press release? Gossip items?

Kael’s disclaimer, however, was that “‘Nashville’ isn’t in its final shape yet, and all I can do is suggest something of its achievement.”  Explaining its structure, she wrote: “The picture is at once a Grand Hotel-style narrative, with twenty-four linked characters; a country-and-Western musical; a documentary essay on Nashville and American life; a meditation on the love affair between performers and audiences; and an Altman party.”

However, not all the major critics adored the film.  Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic found it to be bloated and straining to be an all-American metaphor.

The influential Village Voice critic, Andrew Sarris, admired the beginning and the end of the picture, but found the middle sections deficient because the interrelationships between the 24 characters seemed more suited to a big sprawling novel than to one feature-length film (whose running time was 159 minutes).  As an auteurist critic, Sarris compared it to Altman other films, especially the ritual death issue.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Robert Altman Director: Robert Altman Supporting Actress: Lily Tomlin Supporting Actress: Ronee Blakley Original Song: “I’m Easy,” music and lyrics by Keith Carradine

Oscar Awards: 1

Original song

Oscar Context

In 1975, Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoko’s Nest” swept most of the Oscars, including Picture, Director, Actor Jack Nicholson, and Actress Louise Fletcher, who initially was cast in the role that Lily Tomlin played, based on her deaf parents; Fletcher was fired by Altman in a well-publicized case.