I have very fond memories of the first time I saw Robert Altman’s Nashville. It was for a film class in university that was about Popular American Cinema since 1970, and Nashville, released in 1975, was shown about the fifth or sixth week in. While film students are used to long films with not much happening or difficult art pieces, the 160-minute running time did irk some of the students in the class, not to mention the fact that almost an hour of it is musical performances. However, Nashville really resonated with me; it’s nearly-perfectly woven narrative filled with 24 characters over the course of five days culminates in one of the most ambitious and interesting films ever.
Part of what makes the film so memorable to me is the way that the film reflects America as seen by Altman and company. Altman was always one to work outside the box, and with his de-centralized narrative, without a focal plotline or general direction, seems to have performed near magic, having most of the actors and actresses improvise lines, having them also write and perform their own songs, and then editing the film from a 5 hour original cut (at one point, Altman proposed two separate films, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue, each looking at 12 characters over the same 5 days). I’ve watched the films numerous times, with Altman’s commentary, a loving tribute to the film tribute to a city he only ever visited to make a film about (and once more for the Nashville premiere).
What recently rekindled my interest and prompted me to watch the film again was a fantastic book about the film called The Nashville Chronicles by Jan Stuart. In a way, it’s the love letter to the film I wish I had written, looking at the processes Altman, the cast, and the crew, took to create the film that has resonated with many (and, as the book also states, has been reviled by more). It was pretty amazing to hear the stories recounted by the original performers, as it seemed like more of a party than a film shoot. It also goes into detail about Altman’s unusual style, and the utter freedom he gave his actors (some were used to improv and loved it, others couldn’t work without a script). Some of the things Stuart discusses I never knew at all about the film – there was during the late 1980s, a push to create a sequel called Nashville 12, which would focus on most of the same characters a dozen years after the first one, with some surprising and humorous revisits of their situations.
I’ll be the first to say that Nashville isn’t for everyone. For one, it does contain a lot of country music, some of which is quite good, but with an entirely original soundtrack, even country fans will only find the songs familiar in structure. Film purist will enjoy Altman’s revolutionary approach to sound, the very focused and studied mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing. Those interested in acting have to look no further than Lily Tomlin’s star-making performance or Ronee Blakely’s fragile role as a Loretta Lynn-like music star. Everything comes together to make something so perfect and beautiful that it makes me remember what keeps me watching films altogether. And that’s not hyperbole.
But if not for all of the aforementioned reasons, watch Nashville for Jeff Goldblum, the non-speaking, sunglass-wearing, bad-magic-doing tricycle man, who always seems to be around. Come on, it’s the Goldblum!