Screenplay : Joan Tewkesbury
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1975
Stars : Barbara Baxley (Lady Pearl), Ned Beatty (Delbert Reese), Karen Black (Connie White), Ronee Blakley (Barbara Jean), Timothy Brown (Tommy Brown), Keith Carradine (Tom Frank), Geraldine Chaplin (Opal), Robert DoQui (Wade), Shelley Duvall (L. A. Joan), Allen Garfield (Barnett), Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton), Scott Glenn (Glenn Kelly), Jeff Goldblum (Tricycle Man), Barbara Harris (Albuquerque), David Hayward (Kenny Fraiser), Michael Murphy (John Triplette), Allan Nicholls (Bill), Dave Peel (Bud Hamilton), Cristina Raines (Mary), Bert Remsen (Star), Lily Tomlin (Linnea Reese), Gwen Welles (Sueleen Gay), Keenan Wynn (Mr. Green)
When Robert Altman's "Nashville" was released in 1975, there had never been a film quite like it. At the time, Altman was already known as a critically celebrated, countercultural force with the war satire "M*A*S*H" (1970) and his deconstruction of both the Western in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971) and film noir in "The Long Goodbye" (1973). His style of long takes, naturalistic violence, and ensemble acting were already well-established. Still, nothing could have prepared Hollywood for the impact "Nashville" would have. Part comedy, part drama, part social commentary, and part musical, it is a film that truly defies categorization or simplistic descriptions.
A general rule of the Hollywood movie is to focus on a small set of characters. "Nashville" broke that rule wide open by following the lives of no less than 24 major characters over a period of five days. In two hours and forty minutes, Altman follows the narrative trajectories of all these characters, managing to make each one of them unique and interesting with only minimal screen time.
The screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury is an incredible piece of work, intertwining the lives of all these various characters against the backdrop of Nashville, Tennessee, the country music capital of the world, during an especially heated presidential campaign in the year of America's 200th birthday (overwrought patriotic imagery is everywhere). The problem with "Nashville" at the time was that it was too revolutionary (which is probably why Pauline Kael loved it so much and audiences didn't). When United Artists head of production David Picker first read the screenplay, he rejected it with a note that said, "This is not a script." UA refused to make the film, and Altman ended up making it on his own with ABC Pictures. And, according to Tewkesbury, after Picker saw the premiere, he sent Altman a telegram that said simply, "I was wrong."
While "Nashville" is primarily about the show business world of country music, it has the kind of scope and ambition that allows it to turn the music scene into a microcosm of the United States in the mid-1970s. The twin political upheavals of Vietnam and Watergate are written all over the film, especially in the scenes that focus on a radical third-party presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker of the fictional Replacement Party.
Walker, who is never seen physically, still becomes a thematic force, as one of his campaign vans constantly lurks in the background, its loud speakers blaring his platform based on taxing churches, changing the national anthem, and removing all lawyers from government. It is only appropriate that the film climaxes at a Walker campaign rally in front of Nashville's Parthenon where unexpected violence breaks out, completely disrupting any sense of narrative momentum and leaving the fate of every major character dangling in unresolved limbo.
That Altman was able to get away with such a radical reworking of cinematic narrative is amazing. That it worked so well that other filmmakers have followed in his footsteps (think P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia") is testament to his strength of vision and skill behind the camera. As much as "Nashville" is a pastiche--a pasted together assortment of narrative shards that give a sense of life, but not of story--it is still more compelling than most traditional three-act narratives that feature closure and resolution. Like life itself, nothing is resolved in "Nashville," nor should it be.
And, like life, "Nashville" is populated with a wide assortment of characters, all of who stick in your mind long after the film is over. From Geraldine Chaplin's aggressive BBC documentary filmmaker, to Lily Tomlin's unfulfilled gospel singer, to Keith Carradine's womanizing folk-rocker, each character is fascinating and memorable. Some of the saddest and funniest scenes involve Karen Black as a struggling singer whose desire for fame and fortune blinds her to the obvious fact that she is utterly untalented. Ditto the sequences involving Ronee Blakley as a country diva whose health problems are forcing her professional life onto shaky ground; the sequence in which she begins to have a breakdown on stage by telling pointless stories when she should be singing is both hilarious and gut-wrenching.
Altman will likely never equal "Nashville." He came close with 1993's "Short Cuts," a film that was very similar in tone and structure. Perhaps there will always be something a bit magical about "Nashville" because it was so unique at the time and it has had such a lasting influence on how movies are made. Over the past 25 years it has more than stood the test of time, and it will continue to be the bar by which other films like it are measured.
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Extras||Audio commentary by director Robert Altman|
Exclusive interview with Robert Altman
Original theatrical trailer
|It borders on the criminal that, in 20 years of home video availability, "Nashville" has never been presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio. This alone makes Paramount's new DVD worth a look. Presented in anamorphic widescreen in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, "Nashville" looks like a whole new film. Large scenes are given the scope they deserve, and one can sense how Altman's deliberate long takes were horribly mangled by the constant back-and-forth cutting and forced pans needed in pan-and-scan transfers. The DVD's image quality is uniformly good, although the age of the film is apparent. There are a few noticeable blemishes on the negative (especially during the opening credits), and the colors seem to have faded a bit. Detail is relatively good even though the image is a bit soft. Still, this transfer is far and beyond superior to any previously existing version on home video.|
|The soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, which is the only audio option on the disc. Although five channels are available, the soundtrack seems to be confined mostly to the front soundstage. During some of the many musical numbers ("Nashville" is, unsurprisingly, filled with wall-to-wall country music) the soundstage expands and takes good advantage of the surround speakers to create an ambient environment. The sound is generally clear, although dialogue is a bit difficult to understand in some of the crowded scenes when there is a great deal of background noise.|
|The DVD's main feature is a scene-specific running audio commentary with director Robert Altman. He discusses everything about the film, from the music to the casting (after all, he has almost three hours to fill--little surprise that there are numerous silences, especially near the end). His commentary is highly informative and flows nicely. The disc also features a 12-minute interview with Altman, which covers much of the same territory as the commentary. It is still an interesting piece, and much of it focuses on Altman discussing the various actors and how and why they came to be cast in "Nashville." A minor point of contention in the interview: Altman claims Louise Fletcher backed out of the role that Lily Tomlin ended up playing (the character was based on Fletcher, whose parents are deaf), while Fletcher has been quite vocal that she was always supposed to play the part and Altman hired Tomlin without telling her (in Peter Biskind's book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Fletcher is quoted as saying, "I stopped speaking to him [Altman], because he hurt me so bad." The disc also contains the original theatrical trailer that ambitiously (and rapidly) explains who every single character in the film is.|
©2000 James Kendrick