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#8. Nashville (1975) There are two movies I remember from when I was a kid that I was too young to see at the time but wanted to because of the fuss that the grown-ups made about them – Chinatown and Nashville.
The fascination with Chinatown had to do with the weirdness of hearing about a guy getting his nose slit open. Nashville was something else all together. My mom and her friends from the neighborhood were scandalized by the movie – by the sex, of course, but more so, I think, by the assassination of one of the stars, a woman who was shot on-stage. Years later, when we got our first VCR and the Video Vault opened on Dixie Highway, these were two of the first movies I rented with my own money.
Robert Altman is one of my heroes, and Nashville is my favorite of his movies – bold and joyful, like its creator – a cross between Evel Knievel and Jackson Pollock.
Though it was released in 1975, Nashville was shot a year earlier, as Nixon was resigning from office because of the Watergate debacle. In the decade prior to that, there was Viet Nam, political assassinations, and the emergence of groups like the Weather Underground and the John Birch Society. And so, Altman’s Nashville is his take on our country’s collective nervous breakdown in the wake of those unprecedented events, characterized by the chaotic interweaving of about two-dozen lives over the course of a few days in Nashville during a heated presidential campaign.
The movie itself is a wild ride of stops and starts and intersecting characters that are in or on the fringes of the country music business. To try and describe the plot is impossible because there really isn’t one, at least in the conventional sense. Nashville opens with a white van pulling out of a garage. It’s painted up with campaign slogans for third-party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker and outfitted with a loudspeaker system that plays a continuous loop of his campaign rhetoric. The van shows up throughout the movie, like a mechanical Greek chorus, serving as what Altman called connective tissue, connecting the many strands of the story and giving them a sense of unity. A few of the characters serve the same purpose, like Jeff Goldblum, as a hippie chopper riding magician or sorts, who never utters a line of dialogue, but interacts with a few of the characters nonetheless. There’s also Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a reporter from the BBC, who stalks, badgers, or sleeps with just about every character in the story.
Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is the king of country music, a kind of Roy Acuff in a Nudie suit, who is being heavily recruited by a political front-man (Michael Murphy) to headline a benefit concert for Hal Phillip Walker, of the Replacement Party, a populist candidate who wants to change the National Anthem and ban lawyers from serving in congress, among other things. Think Ross Perot on quaaludes.
Haven is pre-occupied with his protege Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who has recently recuperated from a freak accident. She’s also on the verge of nervous collapse, but is pressured by her husband/manager to perform at numerous local engagements, including the Walker campaign rally. Does that sound a little like Loretta Lynn? In addition to the Coal Miner’s Daughter, we get alternate versions of Charlie Pride and Lynn Anderson, and a song out of the Merle Haggard songbook.
Lilly Tomlin is a local gospel singer who goes astray with Keith Carradine, who is one-third of a popular folk trio, a narcissistic womanizer who also beds Opal and Mary (Christina Raines), the second-third of his trio, who also happens to be married to Bill (Allan Nicholls), the third-third of the trio.
Ned Beatty is Lilly Tomlins husband. He’s also Haven Hamilton’s lawyer, and is being used by Michael Murphy to recruit Hamilton, as well as other musical acts and even some strippers for a fund-raising event.
Suelleen Gay (Gwen Welles), is an aspiring singer who couldn’t sing her way out of a wet paper bags shot full of holes, but she plugs away, willing to do anything to be like Barbara Jean – even some stripping for the local Rotarians/Lions/Mooses at a “political meeting.”
Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) is a local elderly man with a sick wife in the same hospital where Barbara Jean ends up. His neice Martha (Shelley Duvall) flies in from LA looking like a cross between David Bowie and Olive Oyl, but never has time to see her sick aunt – she’s too busy running off with whatever guy catchers her attention. Mr. Green also rents out rooms in his old house to young people who are often aspiring musicians.
David Hayward, Barbara Harris, and Scott Glenn all play visitors to Nashville, who have their own relationship with or desire for celebrity.
All the actors sing their own songs, and most wrote them as well. In fact, Keith Carradine won an Oscar for “I’m Easy.” It was a ballsy move, and the results are mixed. Lilly Tomlin, whose acting performance was wonderfully textured, gave an equally poor showing with her gospel number. She’s no singer. But that was beside the point, really. Nashville is not a documentary about the country music scene, though it looks like one at various points.
All of these characters gather at the Parthenon for a concert/political rally where candidate Walker is due to give a speech that will never be delivered. A violent act will shatter the frenzied tension of these lives, as well as the movie. It’s a jarring conclusion that was shocking in 1975. Today, it’s an eerie precursor to John Lennon’s murder – a bit of prophecy we could have done without.
In the wake of this act, one loser becomes a winner, if for only 15 minutes, when she seizes her opportunity to sing for the stunned crowd. The remnants of the crowd come together as the song – an omnipresent top-40 hit – progresses. Tomlin’s gospel choir assembles on stage and sings backup. It’s a moment not too unlike the images of the crowds that gathered outside the Dakota on the night that Lennon was shot, seeking community to cope with a senseless tragedy. With a ragged Pied Piper leading them, they all sing the chorus “it don’t worry me” over and over.
As they do this, Altman shows us images of children in the crowd, one after the other, clueless and innocent. Rather than taking this as a sign of hope, I see it as a cause for alarm. These little ones will inherit a world we’ve prepared for them – a world of violence, compromise, and shallowness. It should worry us. A lot.