Still the Damndest Thing: Looking Back at Nashville

nashville_criterionIn September of 2000, director Robert Altman stated that if George W. Bush was elected president of the U.S. that he would leave America for France. He added that a Republican victory would be “a catastrophe for the world.”

Of course, Bush won, defeating Al Gore by a narrow, controversial margin, yet Altman decided to stay. If the then-75-year-old filmmaker decided to head back to France where had lived at short periods of time throughout his life, it would have surely been a striking irony.

That’s because Altman crafted perhaps the most “American” film ever made: 1975’s Nashville.

Some would argue Nashville and many of Altman’s other works, such as Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and the mini-series Tanner were, in fact, un-American, visions of the American Dream turned sour. They would be wrong about these efforts: the projects were certainly critical of certain aspects of American life and ideals, but not un-American.

In fact, Nashville, recently released by Criterion in a an extras-packed Blu-ray and DVD package, is a—if not “the”–quintessential film about our great country, a masterpiece that offers a mosaic of the good, ole U.S. of A. in all of its glory and all of its discontent. It’s a movie about high hopes and shattering disappointments, about the American people and their generosity…and cruelty, their compassion and…their greed. As the poster says, “It’s the damndest thing you ever saw.”

I’ve seen Nashville several times on the big screen, and each time it has gotten richer and more exhilarating. As the years go by, it appears an even more amazing achievement than before, just by the fact that Altman was able to pull this red, white and blue circus off so masterfully.

When the film was released in June of 1975—“Altman’s gift to the country for its Bicentennial,” I had read somewhere—I had mixed feelings before even seeing it. I was already a big Altman fan, with MASH, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and California Split. I eagerly awaited this unpredictable filmmaker’s next project, but when I heard about Nashville, my immediate response was “It’s about country music. Who cares?”

Luckily, I had a friend named Ken Tasker who cared, and talked about the film for months before it came out. Ken was a big country fan and had pictures of Dolly Parton taped onto his bedroom walls. He saw Nashville before I did, and urged me to go see it with him for his second time.

I relented, but the cat was already out of the bag, so to speak. Pauline Kael had already published her now-famous advance rave in The New Yorker—based on an unfinished version of the picture–months before the film was released.

“Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie lovers—but an orgy without excess?,” Kael’s  review begins. “In Robert Altman’s almost three-hour film called Nashville, you don’t get drunk on images, you don’t get overpowered—you get elated. I’ve never seen a movie I loved in quite this way: I sat there smiling at the screen, in complete happiness.”

Based on the review, the film had a lot to live up to. And, in fact, it did, at least critically. Variety called it “One of the most ambitious, and more artistically, successful, ‘backstage’ musical dramas,” while the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, who took Kael to task for critiquing a rough cut of the film, wrote that “It’s a film that a lot of other directors will wish they’d had the brilliance to make.” And Molly Haskell in the Village Voice claimed, “I come out dazzled, stimulated, exhilarated by the sheer talent on display.”

Despite the love affair the critics had with Nashville (it was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director), it failed to click at the box-office.

So what is Nashville, exactly? Well, it is really hard to explain. There are 24—count ‘em—people whose lives nudge against each other and sometimes intersect. They are gathered in the country music capital for different reasons.

Nashville, like Chinatown released a year earlier, is not only a location, but a metaphor.  Here, the town is a place where dreams can be built, but also shattered, and where opportunity and tragedy can sneak up and bite you in the butt when you least expect it.

The one constant running though their lives is that a new (unseen) third-party political candidate—is it supposed to be Jimmy Carter? George Wallace?–named Hal Phillip Walker is getting his point out there, and the Nashville performers and movers-and-shakers are getting behind his shallow politicking.

The multiple characters and their stories are put into motion when a political rally is planned for Nashville, and candidate Walker’s frontman (Michael Murphy) attempts to recruit Grand Ole Opry stars to partake in the proceedings. Among the prominent people in the Nashville establishment we meet are Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), an unstable country songstress, managed by her crude husband (the great Allen Garfield); Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), the CW music patriarch with a Napoleonic complex; Connie White (Karen Black), another popular country star; and Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown), the smooth black singer in the Charley Pride mold.

Along the periphery of the rich, famous and successful are an assortment of wannabes (Barbara Harris, Gwen Welles) and weirdos (Jeff Goldblum as a chopper-riding stranger, Shelley Duvall as a groupie visiting uncle Keenan Wynn and a sick aunt).  There’s Keith Carradine as a womanizing singer-songwriter, Lily Tomlin (in a role created for Louise Fletcher) as a white session singer who performs with a black gospel group, and Geraldine Chaplin as a ditsy BBC reporter. All this, and Elliott Gould and Julie Christie playing themselves in cameos!

The film must have been incredibly complicated to put together. Joan Tewkesbury is credited as the screenwriter, but the script went through several drafts by her; Altman and his associate, Alan Rudolph also worked on it, and much room was left for improvisation. True to the Altman style, the final film has many improvisational sequences—the film is fresh, and seems to be bursting with spontaneity, thanks in part to the trademark Altman overlapping dialogue and slow zooms used for cinema verite effect.

(At one time, ABC had planned to air an extended version of the film that was six hours in length. It never happened, and, sadly, none of the extra footage appears on the Criterion DVD or Blu-ray.)

Many of the performers wrote (with an assist at times from composer Richard Baskin, who also appears in the film) and sang their own songs, which offer an extension into the world of their characters. But what seemed like a solid marketing idea by ABC Records at the time, releasing a soundtrack featuring such a diverse cast, backfired. On many tunes, it’s difficult to discern whether the actors are playing it straight, or lobbing gobs of cynicism and satirical jabs at the country music sphere.  It’s no surprise, then, that the C&W music industry and its fans hated both the film and soundtrack of Nashville with a passion.

“I’m Easy,” performed and written by Keith Carradine, won the Academy Award for Best Song that year, and is featured in one of Nashville’s most memorable scenes. Carradine performs the heartwrenching ballad at a club in front of several ex-lovers—bandmate Cristina Raines, Duvall, and Chaplin—who each believe the song was written for them. It turns out he wrote it for Tomlin, sitting in the back of the club, and when the others realize that Carradine is singing to the older, married woman, they react in a gamut of emotions. The scene is sad, funny and touching.

Conversely, the songs from Gibson’s country kingpin Haven Hamilton are the most trenchant: “200 Years,” an uber-patriotic ballad; “For the Sake of the Children,” a sappy ode to keeping a marriage together for the kids; and “Keep A’Goin’,” a salute to Yankee self-determination in the face of  catastrophic events.


Then there’s “It Don’t Worry Me,” sung initially by Barbara Harris’ aspiring singer in  the film’s amazing finale at the Nashville Parthenon during a political rally for Hal Phillip Walker.

“They say this train don’t give out rides,

it don’t worry me

In all the world, is taking sides,

it don’t worry me

Because in my empire, life is sweet,

just ask any bum you meet

And you may say that I ain’t free,

but it don’t worry me

It don’t worry me!‎

You may say that I ain’t free,

but it don’t worry me.”

It may be this scene and that angered country and western fans most, connecting Dallas to Nashville.  In the midst of tragic events, the denizens of Nashville—stars and common folk alike–band together and find hope.

This is a perfect ending to an often messy, imperfect movie that still could be one of the damndest things you ever saw.