By Peggy Nelson
Nashville – 1975 – dir. Robert Altman
Set in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville (dir. Robert Altman, 1975) follows musicians, con artists, politicians, and weirdos as their lives overlap and intersect over the course of a fateful few days. The film showcases Altman’s signature style of combining multiple story lines, noisy, overlapping dialogue, and realistic, scattered camera angles into a complex yet consistent narrative whole. Considered by many to be Altman’s best film, it sashays between dialogue and song, the individual and the political, and humor and tragedy, without missing a beat.
The film opens at the airport, just in time for the comeback of Bobby Jean (Ronnie Blakley), an emotionally fragile country star modeled after Loretta Lynn. Also arriving in town is a political operative for a third-party candidate (the “Replacement Party”), and a folk trio based on Peter, Paul and Mary. We meet various other of the main characters either at the airport or trapped in the enormous traffic jam just after it. Nashville is a company town, to the extent that the characters there do not even recognize some famous Hollywood actors dropping in for cameos (another Altman touch): everyone is either a musician, associated with one, working for one, or desperately wants to be one. And the music world — specifically, the traditional country music world — is all there is.
The film is a musical, but is not always thought of as one because the “breaking into song” parts, instead of breaking out, are woven into the plot as the characters perform. Some of the standouts include Ronnie Blakley’s “Dues,” Barbara Harris covering Keith Carradine’s “It Don’t Worry Me,” and of course Carradine’s “I’m Easy,” which not only won an Academy Award for best song, but crossed over from the country to the pop charts, breaking the Top 40.
Also in the mix are Lily Tomlin as the not-quite-believable head of a gospel choir, Geraldine Chaplin as a narcissistic BBC reporter, Shelley Duvall as a boy-crazy teen, Keenan Wynn as her overtaxed uncle, and Karen Black, transitioning from her role as wannabe singer in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces to a successful country diva and Bobby Jean’s main rival here. And let’s not forget a young Jeff Goldblum as The Weirdo, given no lines but tasked with transitioning the film on his 3-wheeled chopper when Altman needed to move things along.
The third-party candidate is never onscreen, but is a recurrent character in the movie nonetheless. Overdubbed in loudspeaker-announcement style, his political rants provide a counterpoint and context for the actions of the characters. This is post-Nixon America, emerged from the devastating generational war in Vietnam only to be confronted with the utter deviousness and fallibility of its leaders in the Watergate crisis. At the same time the promise of the company-man establishment has utterly imploded, but has not been replaced by the promises of the 60s. We are left nowhere, having seemingly tried everything, and believing in nothing. At first you the viewer try to tune out the pronouncements, but bit by bit they add up and you start to tune in. Especially if you remember any of the 70s!
But even the music world is a microcosm of its larger environment. At the climax of the movie all the characters gather in an outdoor park to perform or watch a benefit concert for the Replacement Party; the parade of black cars as the candidate arrives consciously echoes a certain procession in Dallas in 1963. I won’t reveal the ending except to say that Altman was both historically reflective and sadly prescient. It is a scene we had seen, and have continued to see, far too often, both onscreen and off.