Robert Altman had directed numerous films prior to Nashville (1975), including the Academy Award nominated MASH (1970), but nothing could have prepared us for his masterpiece. Nashville was so revolutionary that it was seen by some as the future of film. That was hyperbole of course, as Nashville could never be duplicated. Nearly 40 years later, Nashville still feels fresh and unique, and has just been released to Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection.
More than just about any other film, Nashville rewards multiple viewings. A big reason for this are the 24 lead characters, which was (and remains) unprecedented. The ways in which these people interact over the course of five days in the titular city is the plot, and it is fascinating in its complexity. The idea alone is incredible, and nobody but Altman could have pulled it off. As powerful as his vision is though, credit must be given to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who was given the simple directive to write “something about Nashville.”
What Tewkesbury came up with was a template blending the culture of “Music City, USA” with a political campaign. Nashville is a microcosm of America in 1975, and the “everybody can be a star” mentality of it rings truer than ever today. What Altman did was to take all of Tewkesbury’s ideas and have the actors improvise around them. The result is a 160-minute movie that feels almost like a documentary of some of the most fascinating people you will ever meet.
We do not realize it at first, but we are introduced to the entire cast early on at the airport. Singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is arriving home after a burn accident, and everyone turns out at the airport to greet her. Many of the characters are viewed in passing, and there is no reason to think that they will later figure prominently in the film.
Prior to the airport scene we witness a recording studio scene that lays bare much of what Nashville intends to show us. Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is recording a song titled “200 Years.” It is a Bicentennial country ditty, sung with the utmost sincerity, yet as soon as the tape is turned off, Haven is revealed as a complete jerk. In a movie with 24 leads, some are “more equal than others” as Orwell put it in Animal Farm. Haven is a Nashville mover and shaker, and perhaps the most insincere man on the planet. Gibson is marvelous in the role.
The political campaign of the never-seen Hal Philip Walker is another of the major storylines, and it reflected real life more than anyone knew at the time. Altman got an actual political animal of the era by the name of Thomas Hal Phillips to write Walker’s speeches. These are broadcast out of loudspeakers mounted on a van, which travels throughout the city in the film. Many of Walker’s talking points would unwittingly be spoken by Jimmy Carter in his successful 1976 Presidential campaign.
Like Hollywood, Nashville is a “company town.” In Nashville the business is country music, and Altman’s satire of the way people act in this environment is spot-on. There are so many great moments. One features Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), who is a waitress/stripper/singer. Actually she is a stripper with the worst voice in the world, but she thinks that the hooting men are there to hear her, not watch her disrobe. Her humiliation in one scene is total, yet she still believes. It is an unforgettable moment, one of too many to count in this movie.
Keith Carradine is sort of a country James Taylor, and another major highlight. He beds numerous women over the course of the film, and it barely seems to register with him. Carradine actually wrote “I’m Easy,” which as singer Tom Frank he plays to his partners. When he performs the song in a club, Martha (Shelly Duvall), Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), and Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) are all there, and each one thinks he is singing it to her. By the way, “I’m Easy” became a hit single when released that year.
There are so many interweaving threads to this movie that it is nearly impossible to catch it all the first time. This is one reason that it rewards multiple viewings, another is just how good it is all the way through. The ending is as unexpected and unforgettable as anything I have ever seen. Altman took chances throughout his career, and some were more successful than others. Classics including The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001) would follow, but there would never be another Nashville.
Nashville has been released as part of the Criterion Collection’s new “Dual Format” combination DVD and Blu-ray packages, with two DVDs and a single Blu-ray. One DVD contains the film, the second is filled with supplements. The Blu-ray contains all of this material on one disc. The bonus features (as usual with Criterion) are significant.
“The Making of Nashville” (71 minutes) is a substantial documentary featuring interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakley, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, assistant director Alan Rudolph, and Altman’s widow Kathryn Reed Altman. Many elements of the film are discussed, including the fact that the first cut ran to over five hours.
The whole Nashville experience is the main topic of the three interviews with Robert Altman included. The first is contemporaneous, from 1975 (26:36), the second is from 2000 (12:30), and the third is from 2002 (7:50). In these interviews he confirms much of what was said by the actors in 2013 for “The Making of,” and tells a few other stories as well.
“Behind the Scenes” (12:33) is as it sounds, a document of how the big traffic accident scene, and the unforgettable finale were filmed. The final major piece is “Keith Carradine Demo” (12:06), which took place in Altman’s Los Angeles office, where Carradine was recorded performing demos of the songs he wrote for the movie, “I’m Easy,” “It Don’t Worry Me,” and “Big City Dreamin’. This is audio, with still photos providing the visual accompaniment. The original theatrical trailer (2:02) is also included. Commentary is provided by Altman. The video transfer looks marvelous with a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, and sounds brilliant with the 5.1 surround sound.
Whether viewed on DVD or Blu-ray, Nashville is not only one of the greatest films of a decade filled with them, it is one of the greatest films ever made. This Criterion Collection Dual Format release does justice to a truly fantastic movie.