An ensemble film that satires American culture and politics in the 1970s.
Recently I watched Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and was absolutely floored by what I had seen. That film was a scathing criticism of modern mans’ casual cruelty towards one another; it’s a lengthy, sometimes uncomfortable endeavor, but it is also absolutely brilliant. I had already been a rather large fan of Robert Altman (“McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, “The Player”, “Images”), but immediately after watching “Short Cuts” I started to seek out more of his films earnestly, and from what I read online, “Nashville” was one film I couldn’t miss. Having just finished the film an hour or so ago, I have to say that Altman and writer Joan Tewesbury (“Thieves Like Us”) had their fingers on America’s pulse, and what they revealed in their diagnosis was equal parts revolting and fascinating; it’s simply impossible to look away.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Robert Altman’s America!
Much like “Short Cuts” this film really defies any sort of typical plot structure; it just follows certain characters as they make their way through an ever shifting landscape. There are so many characters that to try to list them all would be nigh impossible, so instead I’ll focus a few of the more interesting characters and what they come to represent.
Opal (Geraldine Chaplin, “The Orphanage”) plays a British woman claiming to be from the BBC whom is always looking to get a story. As she navigates Nashville, she continuously narrates what she’s doing and asks people questions from the perspective of a foreigner, and some of the questions she asks are incredibly revealing as to what foreigners must’ve thought of Americans in 1975; even better, some of the questions she asked were incredibly relevant to today.
One of the best performances came from Ronee Blakley (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) whom played famous starlet Barbara Jean. When Jean arrives in Nashville, she has what appears to be a panic attack and winds up in the hospital, and when her manager ends up forcing her to go on stage later in the week, she ends up having a small breakdown on stage. Instead of her fans rallying behind her in support, they jeer and boo at her, showing that the crowd really doesn’t care about Jean as a person, they only care about what she can provide to them: entertainment.
Altman takes his criticism of the music industry even further with the character of Sueleen (Gwen Welles, “Desert Hearts”). Sueleen is an awful singer, but she keeps landing gigs because of the sultry nature of her songs. Unfortunately, Sueleen isn’t incredibly smart so she keeps on signing up for these gigs, only to get jeered at and cajoled into things she wouldn’t normally do. Sueleen keeps getting promised that eventually she’ll make it big, and she keeps on believing people only to be taken advantage of again and again.
There are some really special moments in this where Altman isn’t quite as cynical about the music industry or the American culture, and that’s why I think this film works so incredibly well. There are moments of great beauty where people come together to pay homage to great artists, fall in love with the music their singing, and be influenced to live better lives. Altman’s criticisms are well-founded, but he takes great care not to paint America as a dire and hopeless place (like LA in “Short Cuts”); it’s as if he wants us to realize that while this industry that is filled with horrible people doing horrible things to each other, it also has some genuinely great people whom only want to help others, but it also shows how hard it is for people to maintain their positivity and morality in this industry; it just seems to weigh on even the best of the best, like Lily Tomlin’s (“I Heart Huckabees”) character Linnea Reese.
I also loved most of the music in this movie. There are enough music numbers in here to qualify it as a musical, and while many of the songs are country and western, the variety of singers we hear from is so diverse that the songs never really grow tiring (and that’s coming from a guy who doesn’t really care for country music). I learned that all of the actors and actresses were required to write and perform their own music for this movie, so that honestly led to some rather eclectic songs, most of which ended up giving great insight into the characters. The fact that the songs weren’t all written by one person (as they are in many musicals), added to the authenticity of the film; it felt like we were really there in the city in the thick of it looking for the next great breakout hit. It made it even more exciting when you really heard a great song, like Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy”, which ended up winning best original song in 1976.
Altman’s directing is wonderfully on point in this movie; there are all of his trademark traits like overlapping dialogue, characters that get lost in the crowds, and beautiful long takes. Altman is fast becoming one of my favorite American directors; he just has a way of addressing so many topics without feeling tawdry or feeling unbalanced.
This is truly one of Altman’s better films; it’s bold, ambitious, still ridiculously relevant, funny and tragic all at the same time. It’s a balanced masterpiece that really defies any sort of genre classification, and there are so many levels to this film that it would be impossible to catch all the details and nuances the first time, and I for one would be happy to watch this again and again.
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