“Nashville” - Robert Altman (1975)

Robert Altman’s masterful Nashville (1975) is generally considered to be his finest work, but the film’s diffuse narrative structure makes it hard to pinpoint just what the film is about.  It covers, over a period of five days, events in the lives of some two dozen disparate people who have come to the capital of American country and western music, Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue their various ambitions and dreams.  So there are many little overlapping and intersecting stories told, but there is no high-level, overriding narrative that guides the flow of action. Instead, we just have these crisscrossing narrative fragments, and it is up to the viewer to make some thematic sense to them. 

Indeed, the film’s crisscrossing narrative structure is fascinating, since there are many intersections of these individual narrative fragments along the way; and credit must be given to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (she was also the principal scriptwriter for Altman’s earlier Thieves Like Us).  However, there is a degree of spontaneity to these interactions, and it is known that much of the film’s detail was made up extemporaneously on the production set  (the film was shot in Nashville in order to derive inspiration from the setting) [1].  One might therefore think that the film’s diffuse, almost chaotic, mosaic structure might have been something of an obstacle for critical success, but Nashville was a big hit with the public, and it was nominated for five Oscars and a record eleven Golden Globes.

We could say that one overriding theme of Nashville is the American Dream, which was a thematic background element to some of Altman’s earlier films, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Thieves Like Us (1974), but here the American Dream takes center stage. And it turns out that the city of Nashville is the perfect setting for such a topic.  Actually, one might at first think that Hollywood, which is considered to be the American “dream factory”, would be the appropriate venue for such material; but the scope of Hollywood’s coverage is more global, while the scope of Nashville’s country themes is more personal and more specifically “American”, which makes that city more appropriate as a setting for a drama about the American Dream.  Anyone who can sing might be lured to Nashville (the city calls itself “Music City”) to try and fulfill their dream of making a name for themselves and seeing if they can take on some of the city’s romantic glamor.

One stream of American Dream expression is on the political level, where political candidates promise that there proposed government policies will directly lead to American Dream wish-fulfillment.  And such a stream is strongly present in Nashville, where two of the characters in the film, John Triplette (played by Michael Murphy) and Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are shown to be working for a populist third-party Presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, whose anti-establishment policies, expressed in the form of terse homilies, are supposed to make America great again.  The intention of Triplette and Reese is to stage a political rally for Walker at the Nashville Parthenon that will feature music performed by leading country music singers.

Of course another thematic strain is that associated with romantic attitudes characterizing Nashville music, and a number of principal characters are singers. These include:
  • Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), the leading and beloved, but fragile, Nashville singer.
  • Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a longtime Nashville country favorite.
  • Connie White (Karen Black), a prominent country singer who competes with Barbara Jean.
  • Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown), an African-American country singer who performs, like other leading figures, at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
  • Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), and Mary (Cristina Raines), a folk-singing group who have come to make a new start in Nashville. 
  • Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), the wife of Delbert Reese and a caring mother of two deaf children, sings with a black gospel music group.
  • Winifred, aka Albuquerque, (Barbara Harris), wannabe country singer who runs away from her ornery husband to pursue her career ambitions.
  • Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a tone-deaf wannabe singer whose body is the only item of interest to the local male audiences.
Interestingly, although Altman wanted to evoke the Nashville “sound” in the film and the performed songs do make up about an hour of the film’s running time, he did not incorporate many well-known songs from the Nashville community, itself, into the film.  Instead, almost all of the main songs performed were written by youthful composer Richard Baskin or by performers Keith Carradine and Ronee Blakley (actors Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, and David Peel also participated in some of the film music composition).

Note however, that in addition to those above-mentioned thematic elements, I think that one of the most important thematic undercurrents in the film is associated specifically with women and how their vulnerability and courageousness play out in modern American society.  In this respect there are a number of female principals with hopeful dreams who are part of this focus.
  • Barbara Jean, of course, is a major element of this concern.  Her romantic fragility is worsened by her insensitive and domineering husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), who seems mostly only concerned with her business success.
  • Mary, the member of the folk-singing trio, is the wife of Bill, but she is having an illicit affair with trio partner Tom, with whom she is madly in love.  However, Tom is amiably self-centered and eager to seduce any attractive lady.  In fact in this film we see him having intimate relations with four different women: Mary, Opal, L.A. Joan, and Linnea.
  • Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) is an ambitious young outsider from the UK who claims to be working on a documentary for the BBC.  Seeing herself as a worthy intellectual observer, she is wrapped up in her own self-centered fantasies about Nashville and American culture.
  • L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) is a young California girl on the make.  Although she has ostensibly come to Nashville to visit her ill aunt in the hospital, her real aims are to hookup romantically with male Nashville musicians.
  • Linnea is the sensitive mother of two deaf children, but her marriage to Del Reese has gone stale, and she is susceptible to the romantic advances of Tom Frank.
  • Sueleen is a local waitress with dreams of becoming a Nashville singing star.  She tries to take advantage of her sensual physical assets, but she doesn’t realize that her inability to carry a tune means that her dreams of stardom are doomed to failure and that men will just look at her as a cheap prostitute.
  • Winifred, aka Albuquerque, is another plucky young woman with dreams of stardom.  But she does have some talent, and at the tragic end of the film at the Nashville Parthenon, she gets her opportunity.
All these women harbor romantic and largely innocent dreams, but at various points in the film they are all exploited by obsessively self-interested males and their vulnerabilities are exposed.  The freedom of American culture has offered these women opportunities, but the fulfillment of their fantasies has not been forthcoming.

We could identify still another theme at the end of the film, and that concerns the tendency of American culture to trivialize matters of importance.  There are two significant songs in the film that explicitly express this trivialization – "Keep A-Goin'" (written by Richard Baskin and  performed by Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton) and "It Don't Worry Me" (written by Keith Carradine and performed by Barbara Harris as Albuquerque).  These two songs offer the counsel that you shouldn’t take anything very seriously and that you should just keep plugging along no matter what happens.  Perhaps Altman is suggesting to us that this is both a strength and a weakness of American culture.

Apart from any speculation on the film’s themes concerning American culture, though, we can still identify some beautiful moments in the film that stand out on their own special merit.  For me there were two such moments.  One was Keith Carradine’s performance in a nightclub singing his own composition, “I’m Easy”, while four of his mistresses in the audience innocently look on and assume his words only concern their own specific relationships.  This is a memorably filmed sequence of concurrent emotions, and it helped the song win both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Another special moment in the film was Ronee Blakley’s singing of her composition, “Dues” [2].  To me this is the film’s highlight, and her words resonate with feeling and resigned heartbreak:
"It's that careless disrespect
I can't take no more, baby
It's the way that you don't love me
When you say that you do, baby

It hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down
I want to walk away from this battleground
This hurtin' life, it ain't no good
I'd give a lot to love you the way I used to do
Wish I could..."
Those sad words cast a melancholic shadow over my memories of this soulful film.

  1. Austin Trunick, “Ronee Blakley, star of Robert Altman’s Nashville, Nashville’s Barbara Jean Speaks About Her Famous Role and Current Projects”, Under The Radar, (13 December 2013).    
  2. Ronee Blakley, “Ronee Blakley – Dues”, YouTube, (24 October 2010).   

1 comment:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great going... you are certainly on a roll!