Release Date: June 11th, 1975 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Robert Altman Actors: Karen Black, Ned Beatty, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, Lily Tomlin, Keenan Wynn
hough Replacement Party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker’s loudspeaker-equipped van patrols the streets of Tennessee – insisting that everyone is involved in politics, whether or not awareness or acceptance is a factor – it’s the frequent musical sequences that take precedence in this endeavor. However, political campaigning is interwoven with the music scene as artists are recruited for a grand gala. Not surprisingly, much of the lengthy two-and-a-half-hour runtime involves rehearsing, recording, instrument playing, and singing. Unfortunately, there’s a certain drifting and rambling that overtakes much of the action, insistent on spying on the incidental conversations and minutia of surviving the heat and crowds of the bustling city rather than filling the screen with meaningful activities to propel a plot.
Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) from the BBC is making a documentary about Nashville, intruding upon every gathering, which parallels the shooting style of director Robert Altman’s production. Paul Lohmann’s cinematography alternates between fictitious news setups, personas being introduced or arriving to the city, and the camera wandering about, seemingly to focus on random background roles. This is joined by dialogue that has an incredibly improvised, spontaneous, natural feel to it, further distancing the product from a work of theatrical fiction. Recurring characters played by recognizable actors, and recognizable actors portraying themselves, continue to cross paths, building a loosely connected theme – or rather a story arc that touches upon approximately two dozen different “main” characters.
Metro Airport welcomes the arrival of several musicians, their associates, and fans. Their movements through Nashville cross and converge on numerous occasions, first through a highway pileup, then at a private party preceding a Grand Ole Opry show, at several smaller club appearances, and finally at a sizable concert at the Parthenon. Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a famous country singer, preparing a new commemoration song but irritated by Opal’s presence; gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) works down the hall, and briefly speaks with Opal during the car crash delay; later, Linnea’s husband Delbert (Ned Beatty) collaborates with John Triplette (Michael Murphy) to plan a fundraiser and outdoor concert for the Walker campaign. Other characters include Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) and his niece “L.A. Joan” (Shelley Duvall), who is visiting from California; hip folk rock trio “Bill, Mary, and Tom” (played by Allan Nicholls, Cristina Raines, and Keith Carradine, respectively), hoping to record another album; established performer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who is struggling with a recent hospital episode; and aspiring singers Winifred (Barbara Harris), the remarkably untalented Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), and Kenny (David Hayward).
The film is ultimately a snapshot of the country music scene in Nashville, Tennessee. Political commentary and ordinary human drama take a back seat to what are essentially uninterrupted, full song performances. Even the large ensemble cast and unexpected conclusion don’t make much of an impact against the portraiture of mid-‘70s country music, though the peek at business practices and emotional interactions of distrustful celebrities and unfaithful partners presents momentarily curious relationships. Additionally, the scene with Carradine’s Oscar-winning song “I’m Easy” is a brilliantly multi-layered moment amidst flatter documents of plain, tuneful renditions. In the end, “Nashville” reveals similarities to the counterculture themes of “Easy Rider” but provides few resolutions, plenty of questions concerning purpose, and the feeling that, despite drawing correspondence to national confusion and cynicism, the film is a weighty statement instead of modest entertainment.
– Mike Massie