Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Joan Tewkesbury
Starring: Michael Murphy, Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley, Ned Beatty, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, Karen Black
Producer: Robert Altman
Running Time: 160 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
In 1970, M*A*S*H finally got Robert Altman noticed after two decades of mainly director-for-hire TV work. The film was a smash hit and due to the sudden emergence of young talent leading Hollywood in a more exciting and director-led direction, the 45 year old could finally begin to make the kind of films he always wanted to. Over the next 5 years Altman made another 6 films including classics such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye before putting together the character-loaded epic Nashville. It's one of his most well respected films, winning great critical acclaim and making fairly decent money for the time. For some reason however, Nashville has never been released in the UK on home video – VHS, DVD or otherwise. Thank God for the ever wonderful Masters of Cinema Collection from Eureka then, as they've brought British audiences the film in a dual format DVD & Blu-Ray edition.
Nashville is possibly the quintessential Robert Altman film, demonstrating the styles and techniques he is most famous for all in one huge package. Running at 160 minutes, the film follows a vast number of characters (24 key players) over several days in America's music capital of the era, Nashville, Tennessee. There isn't one core narrative as such, just a number of small stories to be told as the cast cross paths along the way. At the centre though is the political campaign of Hal Phillip Walker. We don't meet the man himself (other than in a wide shot towards the end), but his campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy) is getting to know the members of the local music scene so that he can bring them together to put on a big show as part of the election campaign.
Through the various interactions, Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury bring us not just a look at life in the city at the time, but a dissection of America in the mid-70's. In particular, the film is mirroring the machinations of the local music industry with those of Hollywood. The film is full of the blaggers, hangers-on, wannabes, has-beens and established stars which you expect in any showbiz capital. In casting this against the backdrop of a political campaign (*spoiler* even throwing in a reference to the Kennedy assassination at the end *end of spoiler*) it also makes a much sharper insight through showing the farcical celebrity aspects of politics. In fact this is even more relevant in today's political landscape, making the film feel as fresh as ever.
There's so much to enjoy and appreciate here, but being such a character-led piece I have to mention the cast. It's a fantastic collection of great actors from the era. They're not all huge names now, but you'll recognise a lot of faces, from a young Jeff Goldblum in a small, silent, but memorable part as a travelling biker/magician, to the ever reliable Ned Beaty, to Henry Gibson (who I know best as Dr. Klopek from The 'Burbs) to Altman regular Shelley Duvall. I could go on, but pretty much everyone brings in natural and memorable performances. Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin got the Oscar nominations because they have some of the more traditionally dramatic moments, but it's a group effort really. What makes the performances work and the film in general though is Altman's approach to the material and how he involves the actors. Although a script was written by Joan Tewkesbury, setting up each scene and giving key points and lines, the cast themselves were encouraged to give their own input, building on scenes with improvised or at least their own pre-devised dialogue.
Altman did this on a lot of his films, but in Nashville he took it a step further. Being set in the music capital, there were always going to be a lot of songs in the film and Altman himself often refers to it as a musical. However, rather than pick or commission a number of hit country songs to make up the soundtrack, the director actually encouraged the cast to write their own songs (or lyrics at least). This angered a lot of country music fans at the time, who thought they'd get the crème de la crème playing a celebration of the town's greatest tunes. Instead the songs are wildly hit and miss, but in a way that feels totally natural. You can imagine that's what it would really be like in the city at the time. Not everyone is as talented as the big stars that come out of Nashville and the film is about the full cross section of artists and wannabes you get there. Plus, regardless of the consistency, there is still plenty of music to enjoy in the film. Keith Carradine's Oscar winning song 'I'm Easy' stands out in particular (I'm more of a fan of folk rock than country music so it was always going to be the case).
The songs and musical performances provide a backdrop to some of the film's most dramatically effective moments too. The scene which features 'I'm Easy' stands out, when a few of the female characters listen to the song, each believing it's about them and Lily Tomlin's reaction in particular is quite moving (she's a married woman considering an affair with the singer). Intercut with this sequence is a powerfully disturbing scene where Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), who can't sing but gets by on her looks, is forced to perform a strip tease to keep the crowd happy and secure a future gig. I liked Albuquerque's (Barbara Harris') comeuppance at the end of the film too, when she finally gets to sing in front of an audience and nails it, even if it's after a moment of shock and tragedy. It's a scene which, in the wrong hands, could have been mawkish, but given the dark circumstances it has an edge to it and Harris builds the quality and confidence in her voice perfectly.
I must admit, as excited as I was to finally see Nashville, I was a bit dubious about sitting through it, partly because I'm not the world's biggest country music fan, but largely because of the sheer length of it. However, despite not having a strong narrative thread to follow, I could have happily watched another hour of it. Altman is the master of creating these filmic tapestries which roam freely but captivate through clear but sympathetic control and editing of the material. Other directors have tried to emulate his multi-character pieces, but as successful some of these have been on their own terms (such as the excellent Magnolia), none have truly copied that Altman style. He was one of a kind and Nashville is one of the best examples of his unique skills as a director. I slightly prefer a couple of his other films, which is why I haven't given this the highest rating, but it's sharp, witty, incredibly rich and comes highly recommended, especially to those of you in the UK who have been denied easy access to the film for almost 40 years.
Nashville is out on 16th June in the UK on dual format DVD & Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. The picture quality is decent, but not quite as strong as some of the Masters of Cinema best transfers. The digital format doesn't always handle the heavy grain perfectly and the top and bottom of the image is a little soft. In general it's not the sharpest picture I've seen, but this is likely down to the source material. Audio is strong though, handling the complex layers of the soundtrack nicely. Getting this right can be difficult on Altman's films as the dialogue can get lost in the mix sometimes with the frequent overlapping nature of it.
The extra features are fairly extensive (although not as impressive at the US Criterion edition). The big one is a feature commentary from Altman himself (recorded in 2000). I've been listening whilst writing this review and it is very insightful. He pauses a fair amount, but I don't blame him when he's talking solo for 160 minutes.
On top of that you get a lot of interviews. Two are with Altman. One from 2000 is only 12 minutes long, but the director squeezes a lot of facts and thoughts on the production and reception of Nashville so it's a great watch. The other is from 2001 and again is fairly short at 10 minutes, but is still very good and looks into his career as a whole, not just this one.
Another interview is included with writer Joan Tewkesbury. This is fairly lengthy (24 minutes) and very interesting. She talks in depth about the development process and working with Altman. It's honest, fascinating and totally engaging.
The final interview is with actor Michael Murphy. Running at 13 minutes, it's slightly gushing at the start in particular, but it's still interesting and nicely anecdotal.
Also included is a trailer and of course, an always worthwhile booklet looking further in depth into the film. This time it's made up of a new essay by Adrian Martin.
The original theatrical trailer: