Landmark Keystone Art Cinema will screen Robert Altman's “Nashville” in commemoration of its 40th anniversary. The film stirred up a huge fuss back in 1975. With Pauline Kael leading the charge, critics hailed it as an epic vision, profound, and a masterpiece. Then the backlash kicked in and other critics called it superficial and smug. The country music establishment was outraged at its “cheap shots.”
Parts of the movie drove me crazy back then. I thought some of the country music characters were cartoonish beyond belief, especially Henry Gibson from “Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In,” who turned “Keep A-Goin,'” a poem he delivered comically on the TV show, into a straight-faced inspirational tune for the movie. Geraldine Chaplin's roving BBC reporter, who blathered into the mic of her tape recorder as she wandered from scene to scene, was nearly as irritating. At roughly two hours and forty minutes, I thought the film was indulgent and downright dull in spots. I thought that each of the several times I went back to the theater to watch it again.
And the two hours and 40 minutes flew by.
So what's it all about? “Nashville” is a sprawling portrait of America, or country music, or politics and celebrity, or something. Let's just say it's sprawling. There are 24 primary characters – 24! - and Altman gives a good amount of screen time to all of them. Although there was a full-fledged screenplay, most of the scenes were improvised. Altman and the company would arrive at a location and start shooting at length. The actors never knew for sure when one of the cameras was filming them, so they had to stay in character throughout every shot. So did the supporting players, because Altman was fond of including any snippets of dialogue he found interesting. As in real life, sentences of different characters often overlap. The music was all filmed live as well. What you hear is what they played.
The closest to a primary story the film has is this: In five days there will be a rally for a third party presidential candidate. One of his advance men is in town to secure prestige music acts for the rally. Beyond that, everything concerns the lives of the 24 characters. Those characters are played by David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert DoQui, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel, Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen, Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, and Keenan Wynn. FYI: Elliott Gould and Julie Christie make brief appearances as themselves.
Something terrible happens at the end of “Nashville” that wasn't in the early drafts of the story. I wonder how it ended in those versions?
At the time, several writers stated that “Nashville” would change the way films were made and stories were told. For the most part that didn't happen, but you can see the influence of the film in “Hill Street Blues” and its successors, with their huge casts and overlapping dialogue. Thanks for that, Robert.
Altman liked to find a location, plop as many of his prime characters into the setting as was feasible, give them the basics of the scene and start filming. As I watched “Nashville” yesterday, my thoughts drifted repeatedly to “The Simpsons,” another show with a town full of notable characters. The comedy shifts from a rally in the park to a church service, or a party, or a fair, with many of the same faces popping up in each new location. The main plots of the episodes are generally just excuses to assemble the townsfolk in various places and watch the sparks fly.
I realize the “Nashville”/”Simpsons” link is tenuous at best, but I like the notion of the film and the TV series being related. Has “The Simpsons” ever done a “Nashville” parody? Who knows, maybe someone from the show will see this essay online and, in a year or two, we'll get to watch Krusty the Clown warbling “Keep A-Goin'” at a country concert. In the meantime, catch “Nashville” Thursday evening if you can.
Showing: Thursday Sept. 24, 7 p.m. Keystone Art
Rated: R, 5 stars