Directed by Robert Altman
Starring David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert DoQui, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel, Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen, Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, and Keenan Wynn
Over the course of a few hectic days, numerous interrelated people prepare for a political convention.
Robert Altman was a gifted filmmaker whose name belongs in the pantheon of the film industry’s greatest directors, but his movie Nashville is a classic that sometimes gets overlooked among his prodigious output. Released in 1975, it’s a sprawling story that covers a wide variety of characters who intersect in various ways across five days in a city that’s synonymous with country music.
The tone is set from the beginning with a van belonging to Hal Philip Walker, who’s running for the 1976 Presidential election on the Replacement Party ticket. Huge loudspeakers attached to the top of the vehicle blare his campaign messages as it winds its way across Nashville, weaving in and out of scenes. He serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the mildly absurd nature of many of the characters, whose stories are building toward the candidate’s big fundraising celebration in five days.
There are too many roles to list here, but the major ones include: Delbert “Del” Reese (Ned Beatty), an attorney for famous country singer Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) and a Walker campaign organizer; Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), Del’s wife and a gospel singer; Connie White (Karen Black), a country singer who has a rivalry with fellow star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley); Tom (Keith Carradine), who wants to break away from his folk rock trio and has an interest in Linnea and BBC Radio reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin); and Martha (Shelley Duvall), who’s in town to see her sick aunt but instead wants to hook up with a musician.
Jeff Goldblum plays an unnamed character who rides a three-wheel motorcycle, does magic tricks, and has no dialogue. Given Altman’s penchant for improvisation, it’s amazing that the actor didn’t get a chance to use his unique delivery somewhere in the film. However, he does serve as a way to bring various characters together, since he always seems to be giving one or two of them a ride somewhere.
If you’re watching Nashville for the first time, be forewarned that it’s not a movie with a traditional three-act structure where clear protagonists and antagonists battle for control. Altman uses the camera as a voyeur in this movie, oftentimes following one or more characters before abruptly switching to someone else who happens to be walking by. When Duvall’s character is introduced, for example, she stands in the background of the scene for a couple minutes before the focus moves to her.
However, that’s not to say there’s no dramatic conflict in this film. There’s plenty of that, including Haven Hamilton’s meticulous control of his image, which he uses to further his own financial goals; the petty rivalry between Connie White and Barbara Jean; and Del and Linnea’s struggling marriage, among many others. And there is a build-up toward a more traditional climax at Walker’s fundraiser.
Nashville is part of the Paramount Presents line of classic films, and the studio says it was newly remastered from a 4K film scan. This isn’t the kind of movie that anyone will use to show off their high-end home theater system, but the image quality is solid, and if Altman was around today to see it, hopefully he would approve. The film was previously issued on Blu-ray by Criterion, although that version was remastered from a 2K scan.
Unfortunately, the abundance of bonus features on the Criterion platter aren’t included here, although you do get a code for a digital copy. A commentary track with Altman, which is likely the same one that’s been around since the film’s debut on DVD, offers some good background information on the making of the movie, but the director lapses into silence for several minutes at a time. It feels like he sat down in front of the movie without having prepared any material, and possibly without having not seen it in a long time.
However, Paramount did produce a new featurette, the 16-minute 24 Tracks: Robert Altman’s Nashville, which is based on an interview with the director’s son, Stephen, whose first job was as a production assistant on the movie. It covers the creation of the film from screenwriter John Tewkesbury’s diary of a trip to the city through to the post-production process. Altman and others show up in archival footage.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★