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Bucket List Movie #478: Nashville (1975)

Updated on January 20, 2015
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Robert Altman.
Robert Altman. | Source

The late Robert Altman's films were like prairies: wide, sprawling, seemingly nothing to them, but in actuality bustling with life and activity if you looked closely. Altman is loved by film buffs, but is sometimes kept at arm's length by most mainstream audiences, and not without reason. The man never met a two hour running time he didn't like (and if he could make it longer, then, by gum, he did), and didn't shy away from meandering introspection. This is the man who made Popeye a nearly two hour, remarkably subdued live-action film about the cartoon sailor and company ruminating on life.

Altman directed the film version of M.A.S.H., as well as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and The Player (all BLMs I plan to check out soon), and the Julian Fellowes-penned crowd pleaser Gosford Park. I for one highly recommend Altman's overlooked 2003 film The Company, which, in my opinion, is the best movie about ballet ever made. It's a long, loving but pragmatic look at the hopes both fulfilled and dashed in that most brutal of art forms, and it stars Neve Campbell, who was a legitimate ballet dancer before she was an actress (take that, Natalie Portman).

Yet today's BLM is widely considered the big, fat, gaudy jewel in Altman's crown: 1975's Nashville, one of the most unassuming epics ever made. Over two and a half hours long, with an overwhelming cast of actors (some of whom are just playing themselves), story lines that run together like cars on a spaghetti junction, and a finale that refuses to feel like a finale.

Normally I would steer clear of a film like Nashville; if you want me to keep my butt in my seat for 2+ hours, you'd better have a plot. But I was riveted as I watched Nashville, because it isn't just a slice of life tale- it's the whole damned pizza. There are characters who are so human and real, you feel you've encountered them in your own life. There are situations that titillate, frustrate, tug at our sympathy, and some are kinda-sorta resolved, but most of them aren't. "C'est la vie", the movie seems to say with a shrug. Roger Ebert, a huge fan of Nashville, always liked to say that the best films are voyeuristic, and Nashville is definitely that. You know the old trope of leaving the camera or microphone on and we catch what the normally polished celebrity is saying, be it banal or absolutely shocking? That's what Nashville is, from beginning to end. Altman has given us a free pass to eavesdrop on these people, and we are giddy with impish glee at being allowed to get away with it.

This barely makes up a fraction of the cast, by the way.
This barely makes up a fraction of the cast, by the way. | Source

Nashville, Tennessee is the country music capital of the world. Thousands upon thousands of bright-eyed hopefuls flock to Nashville, hoping to make their country music dreams a reality. It's the home of Tennessee's equivalent of Carnegie Hall, the Grand Ole Opry, a theatre graced by the likes of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and Garth Brooks. But, like Hollywood, Nashville is a conservative dominion of unyielding rules. It's in many ways still very much a boy's club, and country music stardom has just as many challenges and pitfalls as movie stardom. Many reach for Nashville's brass ring, but only a few succeed in grabbing it.

This is just one of many, many plot points in Nashville, as we are introduced to many characters and how their own stories deliriously collide with each other. There's Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), an old-school country music star whose pompous ramrod persona (not to mention his laughable toupee and hokey songs) hide depths of character that most of his colleagues can only hope to possess. Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is a country music megastar who has recently been hospitalized for burns and is now recovering from a nervous collapse, due in no small part by her lout of a husband/manager (Allen Garfield). With her autobiographical songs, fragile demeanor, girlish wardrobe, domineering husband, and public breakdown, Barbara Jean is most certainly a nod to the great Loretta Lynn.

Geraldine Chaplin, who got her start playing demure ingenues (such as in Doctor Zhivago), is a daffy hoot as Opal, a smarmy, tactless reporter for the BBC who is every annoying journalist cliché rolled up into one kooky package. Shelley Duvall, a regular in Altman's films, is L.A. Joan, a wannabe groupie who manages to upstage herself with her increasingly outrageous wardrobe, and a very young Jeff Goldblum is quirky scene-stealer Tricycle Man, who cruises the town on his 3-wheel motorcycle. Lily Tomlin received her only Academy Award nomination as Linnea Reese, a gospel singer with two deaf kids (parallels to opera singer Beverly Sills, perhaps?) who is being stalked by miserable, womanizing folk singer Tom (Keith Carradine). Shockingly, she actually goes to meet him, leading to a one-night stand that's only made understandable by the fact that Linnea is married to Delbert (Ned Beatty), a negligent lump of a man who doesn't even bother to communicate with their kids. It's one of the most sympathetic, well-handled scenes of adultery I've ever witnessed in a film.

There are two memorable music hopefuls in Sueleen (Gwen Welles) and Albuquerque (Barbara Harris). Sueleen has ambition coursing through her veins, can fill in a one-piece flared pantsuit (after she's stuffed her bra), and suffers not a drop of stage fright. Alas, she has less talent than she does self-awareness, and this is put on pitiful display when, in an effort to tame a crowd gone sour, she resorts to a half-hearted strip show. Albuquerque, on the other hand, is a slovenly, scrappy middle-aged woman who keeps missing her chance to sing, until Nashville's culminating moment...

Dammit, do you really want to do the "Ernestine" routine now?!
Dammit, do you really want to do the "Ernestine" routine now?! | Source

I'd never be able to get through all the characters and their individual stories and make this review readable. Besides, it's best not to know everything about Nashville before seeing it. I will tell you that the actors who sing in this movie wrote their own songs and did their own singing. We are able to see these people with all their foibles and shortcomings, but we are also privy to the good, whether it's Barbara Jean's genuine love for her parents reflected in her songs, Linnea's devotion to her kids, and the way music fuels passion in both artists and fans.

Altman's allowance of improvisation, fly-on-the-wall approach to storytelling, and massive cast of characters are all indicative of his unique voice, and I can't help but see hints of his influence on such filmmakers as Mike Leigh, Christopher Guest, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Nashville has a sneakily breathtaking quality; you're not even aware of how immersed you are until the end, and 2 hours and 40 minutes have soared by. Nashville rewards viewers for their patience; it starts quietly, but ends with a defiant cry to the heavens.

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