Movies We Like
Even casual film historians know that the 1970s was the decade with the most creative freedom afforded to the director. Just as studios were beginning to become just pieces of larger corporate empires and the blockbuster became the only goal, filmmakers were given unprecedented access to seeing out their visions. No director took advantage of the era as unusually as Robert Altman managed to. After exploding as a brand name director with his huge hit MASH in ’70 he spent the decade exploring a plethora of film quirks, with such notable titles as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and California Split, as well as a number of oddities and misfires, ending the decade with the utterly unwatchable sci-fi bomb Quintet. But Altman’s greatest masterpiece (with apologies to MASH and The Player) came in the middle of the decade: Nashville, a film that truly stands alone as one of those films that could never be repeated (and still proves very challenging to even write about) and, in the end, is the most Altman-y film Altman ever made.
Clocking in at 159 minutes, Nashville is a sorta satire, but also a real tribute to country music. The film takes place during a political rally for the Replacement Party presidential candidate that coincides with a number of musicians coming to town to record and play at the rally. With over twenty main characters coming and going, it’s almost impossible to keep up with on a first viewing. The standout story lines start with Lily Tomlin as Linnea (outstanding in her first film), a gospel singer and mother to a pair of deaf kids, and her husband (Ned Beatty), a political operative for a campaign operator (Michael Murphy) who is putting together a fundraiser at Opryland. Meanwhile, country legend Haven Hamilton (the always entertaining Henry Gibson) is sought after by both the politicians, after he records a tribute to the bicentennial (“we must be doing something right, to last 200 years”) and a fish-outta-water British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin) who has an affair with his son. Another country music star, the very damaged Barbara Jean (Ronee Sue Blakley, who then was known more as a singer, but proves herself as an actress wonderfully here) seems to be having a nervous breakdown and is followed by a lurking uniformed Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn). Up-and-coming singer Tom (Keith Carradine) has all the women chasing him, including a spaced out groupie (Shelly Duvall), but he appears to make a real connection with married mother Linnea. And that's just a taste of the story lines, which also includes a motley crew of characters giving fully lived-in performances, including Keenan Wynn, Gwen Welles, Barbara Baxley, Barbara Harris, Bert Remsen, Karen Black, Jeff Goldblum, Allen Garfield and cameos by Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves. It’s almost like a hee haw version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Everything about Nashville feels completely authentic, from the performances to the music to the locations it’s often hard to tell if minor roles are played by people who just happened to wander by or hired actors. It’s almost like Altman and the crew and the cast piled into a bus and drove around Nashville shooting scenes off the cuff. And that is what makes Nashville so different. I’m not fully sure what it all adds up to, but it feels so alive. You can see the influence Altman had on a film like Boogie Nights, the large ensemble and the actors encouraged to fully embrace their characters' inner lives. But where every word in a script like Boogie Nights seems carefully worded, Nashville feels almost improvised (and it wasn’t; the script is credited to Joan Tewkesbury), the actual words less important than the movement of the scenes and the honesty of the feelings.
The film is wall-to-wall musical numbers. They are often low-key. They all appear to be sung live, and even for a non-country music fan like myself, they are fascinating, moving and often verge closer to folk and gospel. The film ends famously with a shooting at the big rally and then (the great underrated actress) Barbara Harris singing the song "It Don't Worry Me” (written by Carradine, who also wrote and performed the wonderful song “I’m Easy,” which won the Oscar for best song). It’s a heartbreaking ending with a heartbreaking song, and the film seems to be about, if anything, heartbreak. Because no character is given leading player screen time, it’s often hard to know whose eyes we are seeing this world through. Tomlin and Blakley both scored deserving Oscar nominations for supporting actress (as did the film for best picture and Altman directing); they, along with Harris and Gibson, really carry the movie’s emotional core. They didn’t have a sound editing Oscar category back then, but like Altman’s early MASH, the sound design is almost the big star of the show. This was before THX and Dolby and other multi-layered sound equipment became standard for films (especially special effect driven movies). This was pre-computers and the sound was handcrafted on a moviola, the same way the film was edited. In the '70s, Altman and some of his contemporaries (Lucas with American Graffiti, Scorsese with Mean Streets, etc.) were able to blend music with conversations, so instead of it feeling like something tacked on later, it sounded like it was actually happening live as the actors experienced it. This may sound like a small creative accomplishment, but it’s one of the many aspects of Nashville that made it utterly revolutionary in ’75.