Director Robert Altman’s first feature was the 1957 shoestring indie The Delinquents, a drive-in moneymaker filmed in his hometown of Kansas City, and his last was the 2006 movie adaptation of a radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. In the early ‘80s he hit a rather severe creative rough stretch, though gradually his artistic touch was regained as he enjoyed a late-career renaissance spanning over a decade.
However, Altman never really managed a lasting grip on consistency, largely because he aimed big and took risks from within a loose and highly personal style partially informed by improvisation; he followed his breakout 1970 hit M*A*S*H with the unbridled quirk of the same year’s Brewster McCloud and then rebounded with the “anti-western” McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
From there Altman entered what’s arguably his most fertile period, a run of films including ‘73’s noir deconstruction The Long Goodbye and ‘74’s gambling exposé California Split. He capped it in ‘75 with a lengthy ensemble piece of constant energy and movement; Nashville is comedic while highly serious, sometimes broad (e.g. an early routine featuring a doomed mechanical traffic barrier) yet sprinkled with fine detail (a copy of Faulkner’s Light in August on a hospital bed table), with the results occasionally frustrating but more often enthralling.
Indeed, Altman’s tenuous grasp on consistency extends to Nashville. It’s an imperfect film, but due in part to its length and lack of shrillness the faults are easier to absorb. For starters, the original songs, many written by the movie’s actors including Ronnie Blakely and Karen Black (the movie’s score composer Richard Baskin wrote the songs sung by Henry Gibson) are essentially admirable approximations with fluctuating levels of satire rather than fully successful; a notable exception is Keith Carradine’s mellow folk ditty “I’m Easy.”
In terms of Nashville’s female characters, the satirical angle borders at times on outright scorn; e.g. Shelley Duvall’s Martha, a rail-thin musician-obsessed California interloper dressed in either ludicrous outfits or her underwear, and Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal, a ceaselessly intrusive BBC reporter alternating between cluelessness, condescension, pretention and absurdity, can both be as confounding as they are comedic.
Males are the closest Nashville comes to villainy, in particular Ned Beatty’s lawyer Del Reese and Michael Murphy’s political consultant John Triplette, their unrelenting and increasingly egregious legwork giving the lie to the rhetoric of third party candidate Hal Phillip Walker as they orchestrate a benefit concert-rally for his Presidential run. A figure unseen throughout the film, walker is persistently heard cloaking platitudes of disillusionment in plainspoken populist terms courtesy of a loudspeaker perched atop a roving campaign vehicle.
Nearly as dastardly if a bit more complicated is Allen Garfield’s Barnett, the manager-husband of star singer Billie Jean (played with excellence by Blakely), his bullying behavior contributing to her encroaching mental breakdown. By comparison, Dave Peel’s Harvard educated Aryan poster boy Bud Hamilton, the son of Gibson’s Nashville patriarch Haven Hamilton, connects as basically decent as Martha’s uncle Mr. Green, played by Keenan Wynn in a poorly fitting suit of uncommon brownness, is achingly pathetic.
Like many upstart political phonies, Walker taps into the general public’s malaise, with those not exploiting the system for personal gain frequently seen as apolitical, even Bill, Mary & Tom, a post-hippie sell-out lampoon of Peter, Paul & Mary played by Allan F. Nicholls, Cristina Raines and Carradine, the womanizing of the last matched only by his self-absorption; naturally, he’s trying to go solo.
Some of Nashville’s commentary is obvious, for instance the contrast between a studio session where Gibson’s vapid jingoism (“200 Years,” the bicentennial only a year away) is cross-cut with a stirring group outpouring led by Lily Tomlin’s gospel singer (and wife to Beatty’s Del) Linnea Reese, but the movie hardly ever registers as cheap and it occasionally offers moments of real emotional power. This is especially the case when Linnea converses with her two deaf children and even more when Wynn reacts to the death of his wife Esther (like Walker, she’s a character that’s never actually seen in the film).
The picture ends with a shooting at the concert-rally and an exclamation from the stage of the city’s Parthenon that “This isn’t Dallas!” To be accurate, the movie culminates with a performance of the Carradine-written “It Don’t Worry Me” by Barbara Harris’ aspiring singer Winifred. It took Dallas roughly a decade to rebound from the assassination of John Kennedy through the success of a football team, but in Nashville, or in Robert Altman’s Nashville anyway, they immediately follow the killing of innocence the only way they know how; with a song.