By Kristen Bialik
Movie - Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
Nashville Tennessee has earned a star on the map for many things: state capital, “Music City,” “Athens of the South,” and for Robert Altman fans, the site of the 1975 classic Nashville. Befitting a place known for twangy tunes and an imitation Parthenon, Altman’s two and half hour long tragi-comic epic follows 24 protagonists’ lives as they’re interlaced in the Nashville music industry and political scene. The stories are snapshots over a 5-day weekend ending in political rally for an outside (and unseen) presidential candidate running on the Replacement Party ticket. At the same time, most characters are all reaching for some level of fame or success in what’s portrayed as a microcosm of the United States, and one that is personally shallow, politically empty, and commercially tapped-out.
Though many fans and critics believe Nashville to be one of Altman’s greatest films, actual Nashvillians and country music die-hards looking for an extended tribute were more than a little disappointed. Both camps took the film pretty hard, seeing Altman’s signature cynicism as unduly harsh and patronizing. The
“I was willing to believe Altman had been a little rough on his subject until I visited Nashville for the first time, years after seeing the film. I was thunderstruck by how little the film had exaggerated; it had been more of a documentary and less of a satire than I’d thought. There was no escaping the bad middle-range singers, the bored backup musicians, the terrifying big hair, the Goo-Goo candy bars, the homey sentiments, the cranky retirees in cheery T-shirts.”
That’s not to say all the singers in Nashville are talentless dreamers. The soundtrack is pretty dang fantastic, even if the songs are largely parodies. Part of the soundtrack’s power comes from the powerful ensemble working on it. Many cast members were actively involved in the song-writing process, actually crafting the music and lyrics for the characters they played. Dave Peel, as Haven’s son Buddy, wrote “The Heart of A Gentle Woman,” a song his character writes that reveals his secret desire to be a singer like his father. Keith Carradine, as folky-emo womanizer Tom, wrote and actually won an Academy Award for Best Original Song with “I’m Easy.” Carradine also wrote “Honey” and the film’s reoccurring theme “It Don’t Worry Me.” Lily Tomlin, as Nashville’s favorite white gospel singer, wrote “Yes I Do.” And Ronnee Blakley, playing Nashville’s cracked-up but beloved darling Barbara Jean, wrote "Down to the River," "Bluebird," "Tapedeck in His Tractor," "Dues," and "My Idaho Home."
Of course, the songs in Nashville serve as more than mere jabs at country music conventions. The intimacy between song, actor, and character brings this out in a big way. The songs reveal what’s hidden, or more often expertly avoided, in the dialogue. They reveal the true nature of the characters, the desperation and desires through confessions set to music and just as often, lies.
The opening song “200 Years” is sung by Nashville’s biggest star and the one bidding for the most political power, Haven Hamilton. The better part of his success has come from selling an image of himself as dazzlingly wholesome - an image doesn’t quite match with reality. In “200 Years,” Hamilton sings about his daddy losing a leg in France, about his “mother’s people” fighting at Bunker Hill, and about how his brother “served with Patton” and “saw action in Algiers.” Sure, there’s nothing concrete in the movie to discredit this family mythology, but one look at the guy’s white bedazzled cowboy suits and you’re willing to bet more than his hair is probably fake. Such suspicions seem confirmed when his recent Harvard-grad son and current business manager Buddy is sitting in the studio as Haven sings, “I pray my sons don’t go to war, but if they must, they must,” a son who likely deferred service to Vietnam. Similarly, Haven’s “For the Sake of the Children,” tells the story of a father whose love for his children runs so deep he wouldn’t dream of running away his mistress. But Haven’s wife is as unseen throughout the movie as Hal Phillip Walker. Who do we see instead? Lady Pearl, Hal’s mistress.
Yet for the unraveling Barbara Jean, music seems to be the only outlet for her to make sense of a life she’s increasingly dissatisfied with and confused by. “My Idaho Home” is dripping with sentimentality and apple-pie American imagery, and even though she tries to make it sound like a rousing anthem, the song is achingly reminiscent of her childhood. She sings, “Down the highways, on the beaches, just as far as memory reaches… I still love Mama and Daddy best and my Idaho home.” Barbara Jean’s “Dues” seems equally more fact than fiction when she sings, “I can’t take no more, baby. It’s the way that you don’t love me, when you say you do, baby,” especially after seeing her interact with her impatient and controlling manager/husband.
The fame-craving, tone-deaf Sueleen Gay’s two songs are aptly titled “Let Me Be the One” and “I Never Get Enough,” two tracks masked as love songs but confessing the singer’s obsession with reaching stardom. In the same way, folk singer and lady seducer Tom’s love song is aptly titled “I’m Easy.” He does bed a lot of women.
The vying presidential candidate’s campaign is like an extension of the show-business industry taking over the city. His van acts as a traveling radio playing on continuous loop a spoken song of “facts” filled with the same brand of country dissatisfaction and American sentimentalism, pre-recorded, and played for the masses. The only difference is that we never see the singer.
So in a movie about political emptiness as much as American culture and complacency; in a movie filmed and set during the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a growing energy crisis; when (spoiler alert) blood has just been shed by the city’s most beloved country-music stars and Haven cries out for someone, anyone to sing damn it, and when the gospel choir strikes up and Albuquerque sings out the film’s reoccurring anthem “It Don’t Worry Me” the question is – do we believe them?
“A Movie Called Nashville” by Ray Sawhill at Salon
AMC Filmsite Movie Review of Nashville by Tim Dirks
“Nashville Sounds” by Ethan Alter at The High Hat
Nashville Soundtrack at IMDB