Updated: Feb 6
By Michael Mollicone
Hitch on your cowboy boots, hats and embroidered shirts for the musical, political, satirical and outrageous panoramic spectacle from director Robert Altman, “Nashville” (1975). As the title reveals, the centerpiece is none other than the country music capital, Nashville, Tennessee. A record-worthy, 24 characters helm the film, presenting numerous narratives from all walks of life. From the oddball presidential candidate, who’s never shown on screen, to the distressed country idol, the nut-job BBC reporter, sleazy lawyer, gospel singer, veteran, mourning husband and more, “Nashville” is absolutely remarkable in the way it intertwines two-dozen stories all at once.
It’s almost impossible to sum up “Nashville’s” plot, since it crosses so many genres, being part musical, satire and melodrama. Altman has described the grand scope of his picture as being a window into American sensibilities. Truly American on every level, Altman’s film captures American life in a way that’s almost too realistic to be fiction.
Twenty-four people may be quite a lot to digest in a single sitting. Not only that, but no two characters are alike. One of the major figures is the sympathetic Barbara Jean, played by Ronee Blakley, a local hero to the residents of the western community. Jean is a country singer returning to her hometown after being hospitalized from a nervous breakdown. She possesses immense vocal talent, but suffers drastically from her mental instability. Her exhausted husband/manager, Allen Garfield, tries to keep her life together, while also gravely misunderstanding what’s best for her, causing a major conflict. As Jean’s health plummets, her husband only accelerates the process by trying to help.
Now, the sly competitor Connie White, played by Karen Black, takes advantage of the failing Barbara Jean in order to boost her own popularity in the country music industry. Another local country star, Haven Hamilton, played by Henry Gibson, hobnobs around Nashville’s upper circle, getting chummy with a political manager and lawyer (Michael Murphy and Ned Beatty) who are eager to get their radical candidate elected in November.
As several characters are already established faces of the country music industry, there’s also wannabe singers like Albuquerque and Sueleen Gay (Barbara Harris and Gwen Welles) who dream more than anything to have a microphone in their hands and a crowd to hear them sing. Attractive Sueleen Gay is oblivious to her horrible voice, yet finds support from a slimy male audience that nearly drools at the mouth over her. Floating around scenes from venue to venue, you’ll also see a loner with his special fiddle case, played by David Arkin, a rock musician with an affinity for married women, who’s played by Keith Carradine, and a young Jeff Goldblum as a tricycle-riding magician.
Tethered into each narrative is depth that not only connects the characters to each other, but to the western city as a whole, giving “Nashville” boundless personality that exceeds the confines of the screen. Performances are layered and complex, and the overall tone of the movie is hyper energetic. To say that a lot happens in a short amount of time is an understatement. However, nothing felt rushed, aside from the final few minutes of the film.
Even more impressive is that the cast wrote and composed their own music, lending another layer of authenticity to their characters. I’m not particularly a country music fan, but the music in this film could’ve definitely swayed me to take a seat in Opryland. Improvised and overlapping dialogue was also crucial in creating the hyper and layered environment of that crazy city. All of the combined elements made watching “Nashville” one of the most immersive screen experiences I’ve ever had.
As far as themes go, the interconnected narratives present each character as facing personal life hurdles. Altman saw the world through an honest lens and didn’t grant everyone a happily ever after as the credits rolled. “Nashville” captures both pain and hope among its characters, summing up in a shocking final act. It leaves the audience with a mix of emotions, and before you know it, it’s over. Possibly the rush of the film’s climax proves how fast American’s tend to shift their attention and lose interest. Or perhaps Altman was trying to bring hope to a nation moving too quickly. Like how Gibson’s character sings “Keep A-Goin,” we should all be reminded to keep pushing through the obstacles of our lives. In the end, like all 24 characters, our lives will always be tangled together through the good, the bad and the dues that we pay.