By Rob Wolejsza
with Karen Black, Henry Gibson, Ned Beatty, Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin.
Written by Joan Tewkesbury. Directed by Robert Altman. Rated R. 160 min.
Of all the maverick directors of the 1970's, perhaps none was more non-conformist than Robert Altman. While Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola (to name just two) were alternating their personal visions with more mainstream projects, Altman was always doing his own thing, never
giving in to the commercialism of Hollywood.
His films ran the gamut from outrageous comedy ("M*A*S*H") to stark tragedy ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller") to flat-out bizarre ("3 Women"). But in 1975, Altman created what would
come to be considered his masterpiece. That film was "Nashville", and after existing for the past 25 years as an extremely hard-to-find title, it has finally been released as a fine new DVD from Paramount.
This should be a cause for celebration as the fate of "Nashville" was very much up in the air the past few years. Rumors circulated that the original negative print had fallen into serious disrepair and was virtually unrestorable. That Paramount (which owned the domestic rights) and Disney (which owned the foreign rights) couldn't agree on who would pay for a restoration if, in fact, one could be done. That Altman himself had no say in the matter because his greatest triumph was controlled by other people and not the man himself. Whatever the case, Paramount should be congratulated (and they don't deserve it very often) for cleaning the film up and putting it out where it can, and should, be seen. (Kudos also to Paramount for making the disc 16 x 9, so Altman's beautiful widescreen photography can finally be appreciated.)
This was the first viewing of the film for me, and I have to say, it's some movie. It takes place over the course of five days in Nashville, Tennessee, as the city gears up for a political rally. The guest of honor is a Presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker. His populist approach (which could have easily inspired Jimmy Carter and Ross Perot, among others) is gaining momentum, and Tennessee is the next big primary he can win.
Walker's campaign and rally are a springboard for Altman to jump into the lives of some 24 different characters. There's Walker's PR man (Michael Murphy) who's trying to shore up some talent for the rally, and a local promoter (Ned Beatty) who's accompanying him around town. We meet Beatty's wife (Lily Tomlin), who dotes on their two deaf children and sings in a local choir, but it clearly unhappy with her life. There's a womanizing rock star (Keith Carradine); a groupie who falls in love just about every time she turns around (Shelley Duvall); an arrogant country singer (Henry Gibson); another country star (Ronee Blakely) who returns to the limelight after a nervous breakdown; and a hyperbolic BBC reporter (Geraldine Chaplin), who's running commentary on the Nashville scene and extraordinary ability to leech onto others provides some of the film's biggest laughs.
All of these people, and more, are caught up in a maelstrom of music, romance, hopes, dreams, fears, and more music. While they go about their business, Altman's unobtrusive style subtly invades their space, giving us little snapshots of their lives without ever calling attention to the fact that we're watching a movie. The film is so confident, so self-assured, and the actors so natural, that we find ourselves drawn in.
It's almost hypnotic, watching these people, sharing in their triumphs and tragedies. Rare is the film that can make us care about only a handful of characters. The brilliance of "Nashville" is in how, by the end, we know each person intimately and care about their fate. Altman is able to take small, individual moments, and add them up to create whole portraits.
Since the time of its release, "Nashville" has been praised by critics for being a microcosm of American life. And, to a degree, it is. But while watching the film, I wasn't particularly aware of the symbolism, if any, Altman was going for. Instead, for two and a half hours, I found
myself fascinated by a group of living, breathing people whom I was sorry to see go when the film was over. After a quarter-century, "Nashville" continues to involve us like few films can.
The disc contains a few supplements, starting with the original theatrical trailer, which proves that today's trailers are high art compared to twenty-five years ago. It basically runs down the list of performers and a gives a brief intro into who their characters are. It's pretty cheesy, but it manages to give away some of the surprises, too. (I guess some things never change.)
There's an interesting ten minute interview with Robert Altman, in which he explains his casting choices and gives a brief overview of the film's genesis. For a more in-depth analysis of the film, check out Altman's running commentary, where he gives more insight into his thought processes, casting choices, and anecdotes about the making of the film.