What to say about Robert Altman’s Nashville? It has a lot of songs and music so it’s technically a musical. It has its smattering politics and Altman is typically one for subverting the norm, so you could call it a satire. There’s romance, drama, in-fighting, and star power certainly, but that hardly gets to the heart of the film.
In fact, Nashville has an ensemble bulging at the seams with 24 individuals billed in alphabetical order and their names called out at the beginning of the film as if someone is trying to sell us an album. It’s a little over the top, feels superficial, and it’s a little pretentious. Maybe the director’s trying to tell us something. Over the course of the following minutes Altman gives us a picture of a few days in the life of the country music capital of the world, and he shows us all sorts of people.
To name all of them would be tedious and would not give a whole lot of illumination as far as the plotting, but a few of the more prominent names are as follows: Barbara Jean, the sweet heart of Nashville, who opens the film receiving a warm welcome at the airport from her adoring public. But she is physically and emotionally fragile after recovering from a traumatic injury. Then there’s Haven Hamilton, who is an established country star, who still enjoys large popularity and political ambitions are on his radar. Jeff Goldblum, Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, Ned Beatty, and even Keenan Wynn all make appearances. So as you can see the cast are oozing through the cracks.
Their stories are constantly colliding, intertwining, and weaving in and out of each other. Making for a type of narrative that feels organic despite having a script. It feels like a realistic and truthful immersion into Tennessee reality. We even get appearances from a couple Altman regulars Elliot Gould and Julie Christie. Furthermore, it wasn’t much of a secret that the industry in Nashville did not take a liking to the film, but really is that any surprise?
Going into the film we already expect to get a look at the industry’s underbelly and we do, but it’s hardly seems sensationalized; it almost feels commonplace until the final moments. Singers griping, sleeping around, reporters ingratiating themselves to whoever they can find, and the general public coming from far and wide to be a part of the spectacle. It’s about what you expect from an industry that can be ruthless, superficial, and very rewarding to some. To those on the outside it’s something to be fawned over.
The story is framed with the political campaign of the unconventional Hal Philip Walker of the Replacement Party. You can see his van going all across town proclaiming his wisdom to the honest citizens of Nashville. Most of them could care less about politics. Even in the closing moments at a concert in the park with a big flag patriotically displayed on stage with a giant campaign banner underneath, you get the sense that no one has gone there for political reasons. They want to hear Barbara Jean, Haven Hamilton, and maybe tolerate anyone else who comes up on stage. In a sense, that’s the American way wrapped up in a nutshell. Taken in that light, the way that Altman ends his film is not all that surprising. There has to be something to break up the normalcy. Subvert all that is good and patriotic. Throw a wrench in the everyday, because after all his whole film has revealed everything that besmirches the industry. It’s just that it usually stays under the surface or is thrown away to be trampled on or forgotten. Take the no-talent Sueleen Gay, who stubbornly tries to make it in an industry that doesn’t want her.
I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m not much of a fan of country, except if it’s someone like Johnny Cash. So overall I find the tunes of Nashville to be homely and often tiresome, although I do appreciate the fact the actors wrote most of their own songs supposedly. The one exception I cite is Keith Carradine’s memorable tune “I’m Easy” which works as a simple ballad reminiscent of a Jim Croce-type singer-songwriter.
However, I don’t get hung up on Nashville‘s music too much, because this film represents so much more to me. It’s about the intermingling of people and the analysis and dissection of the relationships that are so closely entwined with the country music industry. Whether it’s the insiders or the fans who make them big, Nashville is a thoroughly interesting view of America circa 1975. Some things have certainly changed, fashion-related and otherwise, but I think we can all agree that a lot of things certainly have not. Politics, music, and most certainly people essentially exist as they always have.