[box cover]

Nashville

Paramount Home Video

Starring Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakely,
Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, and Barbara Harris

Written by Joan Tewkesbury
Directed by Robert Altman


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Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville recently reached its 25th birthday, and Paramount Pictures celebrated by putting the PR machine in overdrive: huge articles in The New York Times and Premiere magazine about the film; a Fox Television documentary titled "Altman: On His Own Terms,"; a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with Altman and various cast and crew members in attendance; and a book due in November from Simon & Schuster called The Nashville Chronicles by Newsday film critic Jan Stuart. And, of course, Paramount's DVD version of Nashville, offering its proper Panavision screen-aspect ratio and commentary by Altman.

Why all the hoopla? Well, at the time of its release, Nashville was a ground-breaker. It's impossible to imagine a film inspiring so much public debate today — think Fight Club, then multiply it by about a hundred. The New York Times ran at least eight pieces on the film. Critics and commentators ripped it apart, analyzing and dissecting it for months after its release. Nashville played a large role in the return to auteur filmmaking that enjoyed a resurgence in the late '70s, helping to win public acceptance of directors like DePalma, Scorsese and Alan Rudolph — this opening further doors for current-day auteurs.

All of which is history and has nothing to do with the experience of seeing the film 25 years later. Nashville is, indeed, an innovative, fascinating, frustrating, and perhaps brilliant film. But it's a film that loses an awful lot without the context of when it arrived in American history. In 1975 the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the free-love '60s were breathing their last, and we were sitting in gas lines as we suffered from the OPEC-inflicted "energy crisis." When country singer Connie White (Karen Black) tells a group of young boys in the front row of the Grand Ole Opry that they need to stay in school and study hard because "in this country, any boy can grow up to President" the humor is lost without the audience's awareness that Nixon had just resigned.

As Altman tells it, he had been offered a film about Nashville and didn't like the script. He was hot off of M*A*S*H and trying to get a film made of Joan Tewkesbury's novel Thieves Like Us — which no one wanted. So he cut a deal that he would do a Nashville movie if he could also do Thieves, and then sent Tewkesbury to Nashville to observe local color and take notes. The movie Nashville is the result of her observations, made in typical Altman guerilla style with quirky actors of varying levels of talent, most directly involved with writing their own songs and engaging in a great deal of improvisation.

The cast is made up of 24 major characters, whose lives intertwine in complicated ways over the course of a five-day period in the country music capital. They include Lily Tomlin (who won an Oscar) as housewife/gospel singer Linnea Reese; Keith Carradine as Tom, the womanizing member of a country-rock trio; Henry Gibson as venerable glitter-suited, pompadoured Opryland legend Haven Hamilton; Ronee Blakely as the frail Barbara Jean, who teeters on the edge of yet another nervous breakdown; Allen Garfield as her boorish husband/manager; and Michael Murphy as the advance man for a visiting presidential candidate. The ways the characters interrelate is, to say the least, complex: Carradine is sleeping with his partner's wife (Cristina Raines) as well as pursuing Linnea, whose husband (Ned Beatty) is Haven Hamilton's lawyer and is working with Michael Murphy's character to put together a rally for candidate Hal Philip Walker. While country star Barbara Jean's in the hospital, Connie White is getting her spot on the Opry stage, and a young soldier (Scott Glenn) is hanging around outside Barbara Jean's hospital room. Down the hall in the hospital, Keenan Wynn's wife is recovering from surgery and he tries to keep tabs on his niece Joan (Shelley Duvall), who's less interested in visiting her aunt than in running around town sleeping with various male characters. A woman (Barbara Harris) runs away from her husband in hopes of becoming a country star and crashes parties all over town observing the stars and stealing food. And all the while a paneled van cruises the city, blaring the mandate of candidate Hal Philip Walker, whom we never see.

Two characters are positioned in this morass as necessary connecting devices. Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a reporter from the BBC, worms her way into conversations and parties on the context of doing a documentary on Nashville. She asks many personal questions of the characters, which not only creates opportunities for humor at her expense but also takes care of a lot of pesky exposition. Jeff Goldblum as Tricycle Man drives us from scene to scene on his freaky chopped motorcycle, never having any actual lines of dialogue. The problem with both characters is that they're exceptionally annoying. Opal is sort of Altman's stand-in in the film — totally alien and out of her depth, clueless about anything related to the culture in which she finds herself, documenting everything from a gospel recording session to an auto-wrecking yard as if she were recording an NPR piece on darkest Zimbabwe. And Goldman's character is a complete mystery — he wears enormous Elton John glasses and rides a chopped hog, he sits in diners and makes the salt shaker disappear, but he never says a word and we never find out what the hell it is he's doing there.

Where Nashville works brilliantly is as a metaphor for America circa-1975, which was Altman's intent. Altman portrays a country trying to recover from a nervous breakdown, with a droning obsession with the political process, puffed-up with cartoonish, jingoistic pride and fascinated by the sound of its own voice. Recording equipment is a pervasive theme — tape decks, recording studios, microphones, telephones, speakers — giving us the impression of a society that can't get enough of documenting itself and playing back its own opinions, packaged as either one-dimensional, crowd-pleasing tunes or political sloganeering. Coming as this does on the heels of the media coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Altman gives us a country that is mostly concerned with image, product, marketing and politics. It's savvy, a little jaded, and gleefully cruel.

Where Nashville fails — if it fails — is as a film about real people. To make a movie featuring 24 characters means that a lot of detail is going to fall by the wayside. Actors with smaller, less substantial roles — like Duvall's L.A. Joan or Black's Connie White — come and go, filling a place in the film but offering us no insight into who they are or what their motivations may be. Characters with a little meat like Tomlin's Linnea or Gibson's Haven Hamilton tantalize us with a glimpse at their story but, by necessity, we don't get to fully explore what they're all about. Why does Linnea give Tom a tumble — because he sang her a song? What the hell does Scott Glenn really want from Barbara Jean? Why does the guy with the fiddle case open fire on the singer? And who the hell is Jeff Goldblum, anyway?

At the film's end, most of the characters haven't achieved what they want, a lot of questions remain unanswered, and Barbara Harris's mysterious, unbalanced drifter takes the stage to lead the crowd in the song "It Don't Worry Me" as the police and the politicians try to clean up the mess. Which may be unsatisfying as far as identifying with the characters is concerned, but perfectly sums up the state of America in 1975.

Paramount's DVD release of Nashville offers a good 2:35.1 anamorphic transfer. The sound is a clear Dolby Digital 5.1, which is especially important as Altman's actors typically talk over each other a lot. The DVD offers an exclusive interview with Altman in addition to his commentary track, plus the theatrical trailer. Keep case.

— Dawn Taylor



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