Celluloid Country: Robert Altman’s Nashville Is Required Viewing

Juli Thanki | October 1st, 2009

nashvilleI’ve always been fond of Robert Altman, and not just because he’s my high school’s most famous graduate. His 1975 film Nashville, released post-Vietnam/post-Watergate, combines politics and country music in a film that’s funny, poignant, and thought provoking. Its inclusion in the National Film Registry means it’s one of those movies everybody should see; thanks to Netflix, I finally got around to it.

There are approximately 25 main characters, and an equivalent amount of storylines, making Nashville a movie that requires the viewer’s undivided attention. These folks and their associated plotlines are all loosely united through a benefit concert for presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Walker, from the Replacement Party, is never actually seen; however, his speeches, broadcast throughout the film, make him seem like a flesh-and-blood character.

Part of the fun of watching Nashville 34 years after its release date is trying to determine just which real-life musician each character is based upon. Tommy Brown, an African-American country singer who a BBC journalist initially assumes is white, is clearly Nashville’s Charley Pride, and other characters show thinly-veiled signs of being based on Hank Snow, Loretta Lynn, and folkies Peter, Paul, and Mary. There are a couple nifty cameos; of course, there’s Elliott Gould, who appears in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, but as far as musicians go, Vassar Clements shows up in a couple scenes sawing on the fiddle, as does Merle Kilgore, who plays the ichthyologically-named Trout.

With most Celluloid Country films, the music is just fine while the acting is horrid. Nashville is that rare country music flick where everything is absolutely fantastic. The songs seem to be an accurate facsimile of ’70s country music, and the actors (including Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, and a whole lot of others), are perfect in their roles. Of special note is Ronee Blakely, who steals the show as Barbara Jean, a slightly addled Loretta Lynn-type mounting a comeback from a tragic “fire baton” accident; she even wrote her own songs for the movie. According to Blakely’s website, she’s still making music, in case you want to give a listen.

Clocking in at a little over 2 ½ hours, Nashville is a bit long for those with short attention spans. But the film never seems to drag, as it shifts between characters and storylines. Everything leads up to the final ten minutes; the ending is shocking not because of the gun-wielding nutcase, but because of the number of character revelations featured therein. Nutcase? He’s merely the impetus. Solipsistic Haven Hamilton, who’s grazed by a bullet, recalls President Kennedy’s assassination while simultaneously commenting on the small-town-ness of Music City, remarking “This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville. They can’t do this to us here!” The stirring performance of closing song “It Don’t Worry Me” exemplifies the ability music has to comfort us during hard times (and occasionally obscure various issues…if anything should worry you, the attendee of Hal Phillip Walker’s political rally, it’s probably that creepy loner standing there with a gun).

There’s a lot I’m leaving out here, mostly because this seems like a film that requires multiple viewings to catch all the intricate details and bits of overlapping dialogue, but my mind is still reeling a little bit from this first screening. Also, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael reviewed the film a whole lot better than I ever could. An interesting companion to Nashville might be Chris Willman’s Rednecks and Bluenecks, a book that, as its title implies, examines the relationship between politics and country music, interviewing outspoken artists on both sides of the aisle such as Merle Haggard, the Dixie Chicks, and Sara Evans; I think I’ll be pulling my copy off the shelf for a re-read in the near future.

  1. Robert Loy
    October 1, 2009 at 10:02 am

    If I remember correctly all the stars wrote their own songs — Henry Gibson wrote “200Years” and Keith Carradine “I’m Easy.” So Merle Kilgore was called “trout” in the movie? I wonder if that’s a shout out to Kurt Vonnegut’s alter ego Kilgore Trout.

  2. Paul W Dennis
    October 1, 2009 at 10:09 am

    I enjoyed the film but felt that it was a bit over-the-top, and a bit overpraised by the critics. When it first came out, it seemed to most enjoyed by those who could not stand country music – the more one detested country music, the more they tended to like the film. Over the course of time as country and pop have moved closer together (sigh), that has been less the case.

    I regard Nashville as a good, but not great film.

    The one aspect of the film that bothered me was that the music in it had a very erzatz feel. I have Ronee Blakely’s albums and feel she could have had a career as a singer, but these songs had little to recommend them – they sounded country but didn’t feel country.

    Just my opinion

  3. Joe
    October 1, 2009 at 11:52 am

    LOVE this movie. Great review.

    A link to the Ebert and Kael reviews would’ve been nice. The DVDs cheap now at Amazon: $7.99

    And another companion book, “The Nashville Chronicles” ain’t bad:

  4. Rick
    October 1, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Juli said: “Clocking in at a little over 2 ½ hours, Nashville is a bit long for those with short attention spans.” Well, that leaves me out…(lol)

  5. Stormy
    October 4, 2009 at 12:53 am

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