Why you should care

Awash in music, Nashville is many things — a tragedy, a musical and belly-achingly funny — but above all, it’s an epic love letter to America. 

Back in 1975, movie critics drooled all over typewriter keys describing Robert Altman’s Nashville. It prompted Pauline Kael of the New Yorker to wonder whether “there is such a thing as an orgy for movie-lovers — but an orgy without excess,” while Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “compounded of moments that tingle the spine.”

Nashville came out on the eve of America’s bicentennial, just after Watergate. But with its somehow-exuberant portrait of a disillusioned America, it continues to resonate. Every decade or so, someone publishes an article extolling Altman’s prescience and claiming his masterpiece is as relevant now as it ever was. The Criterion Collection, apparently, agrees: It will release a three-disc box set of the movie on Dec. 3.

We agree, too — and add that, besides being relevant, the movie is one of the strangest and best movies ever made about America. It’s also very, very funny. Although the creators of the eponymous television series have said their show could be considered a contemporary response to the movie, Altman called Nashville “a metaphor for my personal view of our society” and “not the story of Nashville.”

Besides being relevant, the movie is one of the strangest and best movies ever made about America. It’s also very, very funny.

Just what is Nashville? With its cast of dozens, improvised and layered script, and tapestry of storylines, the movie defies easy description. It’s a hilarious, tragic, country-folk opera that ends with an assassination and yet somehow makes you feel hopeful. Songs composed and sung by members of its ensemble cast are the movie’s lifeblood. (The only Oscar that Nashville won was for best song: Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy.”)

Nashville has two major plots: The first centers around the convalescence of the beautiful, fragile Barbara Jean, a country-music star on the verge of a nervous crisis; the second is the creepy rise to power of Hal Phillip Walker, presidential candidate for the Replacement Party.

We never meet Walker. We only listen to the dribble emanating from his campaign-van loudspeakers and see his minions preparing the Tennessee terrain for a campaign appearance. Along the way, we meet a smooth-talking, three-piece-suit operative who’s trying to persuade Barbara Jean to sing at Walker’s fundraiser.

Walker apparently speaks to middle America much in the same way that Ross Perot did in 1991 — with an idiosyncratic “no.” The Replacement Party seeks to end agricultural subsidies, battle oil companies, tax churches, abolish the Electoral College, change the national anthem to something singable and remove lawyers from Congress. And then there’s Walker’s rhetoric, which usually veers over from poetry to kitsch: “Have you ever stood on the high and windy hill and heard the acorns drop and roll?” Walker supposedly asks. “Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”

Tomlin in center singing in a church choir.

Scene from Nashville with Lily Tomlin, center.

Source Everett

Many of the Nashville musicians’ songs are hokey, too, but somehow, Altman neither bores his audience nor patronizes his characters. Well, sometimes he patronizes them. You can’t help but laugh when Haven Hamilton, self-appointed elder statesman of Nashville, opens his Grand Ole Opry performance with these lines:

Unpack your bags, and try not to cry / I can’t leave my wife. There’s three reasons why: / There’s Jimmy, and Cathy, and sweet Loralei. / For the sake of the children, we must say goodbye.

Naturally, it’s sung as a maudlin ballad, with a straight face and to sincere applause. So is an ensuing number by Barbara Jean’s rival, Connie White — that is, until you get to the punchline:

I know you love me when I’m happy, / I know you love me when I shine, / But will you love me in the morning, / When the baby makes you get up one more time?

In a movie rife with visual gags, one of the best is L.A. Joan, the character played by Shelley Duvall: She always seems to be wearing hot pants and a bikini top that show off her appallingly string-beany figure. There’s Opal from the BBC who is funny in a sort of ruthless cringe-making way. Played by Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, Opal is a documentarian with a superhuman social idiocy. When Linnea, a singer played by Lily Tomlin, discloses that her children are deaf, Opal recoils. “Oh my God, how awful!” she cries. “So depressing.”

Linnea protests: “I wish you could come see my little boy,” she says.

“Oh, I couldn’t!” says Opal, huddling as if for protection. “The sadness of it!”

Yet the movie is tender and, dare we say it, loving. Tomlin’s Linnea is one of its most moving characters. Nashville was Tomlin’s dramatic debut, and it’s hard to take your eyes off Linnea as she manages her neglectful, philandering husband, cares for her children and lets it all loose with a black gospel choir. She falls in lust with a cad played by a dreamily handsome Carradine. It does not go well.

Early on in the film, Haven Hamilton sings a patriotic number with the refrain: “We must be doing something right to last 200 years.” We have no idea whether he was correct, but we know that nearly 40 years on, Nashville did plenty of somethings right.

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