The sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville

We explore the dizzying ambition, creative ingenuity and technical innovation that went into the making of Robert Altman’s extraordinary, impressionistic portrait of Tennessee’s country music capital.

22 June 2021

By Geoff Andrew

Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton in Nashville (1975)
Sight and Sound

Nashville is rereleased in UK cinemas from 25 June.

One afternoon in the mid-1970s, I bunked off studies to catch the first screening at the local arts cinema of an American movie set in the capital of country music.

A third-year classics student, I should have been revising late Plato, but I was also a cinephile and determined to see Nashville at the earliest opportunity. The Long Goodbye (1973) had already convinced me that Robert Altman was a director with an uncommonly distinctive style and sensibility, and everything I’d read about his new movie suggested it was as revolutionary in its own way as Citizen Kane (1941) had been decades before.

After nearly three hours in the cinema, I emerged into the daylight persuaded that the hype – kick-started when the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, writing about a rough cut she’d seen, raved about “an orgy for movie lovers” and “the funniest epic vision of America” – was for once thoroughly deserved. Nashville undoubtedly was a great film, even perhaps the greatest American movie since Welles’s timeless masterpiece.

Jeff Goldblum in Nashville (1975)

So what had all the fuss been about? Some of it centred on the fact that the film boasted 24 principal characters rather than the usual two or three leads; set in the Tennessee capital over five days – watch carefully and you’ll find it begins on a Friday and ends the following Tuesday afternoon – it interweaves the ‘stories’ of a garrulous gallery of musicians (both established and aspiring), managers, partners, a political fixer, a quite possibly bogus BBC reporter, workers, fans and sundry other figures on the fringes of the various concerts, picnics and public rituals that dominate the proceedings.

I say ‘stories’ because most of what we see and hear is intentionally mundane, evocative of everyday life rather than conventionally eventful movie drama; notwithstanding a shooting that eventually brings the film to its still unusually open-ended close, the narrative is perhaps best summed up by Altman’s words to the critic David Thompson: “It was about the incredible ambition of those guys getting off the bus with a guitar every day and, like in Hollywood, trying to make it… I just wanted to take the literature of country music, which is very, very simple, basic stuff… and put it into a panorama which reflected America and its politics.” This approach was far from the Hollywood norm, and occupied a very different cinematic universe from another important American film of 1975, Jaws.

The power of the film was that it was a political picture, and the fact it was country-and-western music didn’t have a lot to do with anything other than as a metaphor.Robert Altman

But it wasn’t only the sprawling, multi-character, antiheroic, anti-climactic, anti-cathartic narrative that made Nashville so special. Much of the buzz around the movie highlighted Altman’s unusual methods. Experimenting with an eight-track recording system (then revolutionary in filmmaking), he had encouraged his cast to improvise dialogue; since many of the scenes featured crowded gatherings shot with several cameras, the actors had no idea whether their contributions at any given point in the filming would be seen or heard in the final cut.

Moreover, his deployment of the wide ’Scope screen often privileged dense compositions that included a multitude of characters (Altman would sometimes liken himself to a muralist); eschewing the traditional shot/reverse shot method of constructing a dialogue, Altman was striving for something more closely related to our perceptions of real life.

Mission impossible

With the passing years Nashville has come to feel still more remarkable. It’s almost impossible to imagine such a film getting made today. Then again, even though it did get made, when Altman and his team embarked on the film it must have seemed outrageously ambitious. That’s why, unlike most of the films that followed his massive 1970 hit for Fox with M*A*S*H, its funding hadn’t come from one of the major studios, but from ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) which hoped to turn a profit from an accompanying soundtrack album.

Nashville (1975)

Nashville’s genesis was itself unusual. Around the time Altman was looking to make Thieves like Us (1974), his agent George Litto negotiated a deal with United Artists, who suggested the director work on The Great Southern Amusement Company, a country-and-western musical with singer Tom Jones lined up to star.

Altman disliked the script and offered to work up his own country-and-western musical if the studio would finance Thieves like Us; he sent Joan Tewkesbury, his co-writer on Thieves, to research the music scene in Nashville, and she produced a script based on what she’d seen and heard. Altman implemented several significant changes, adding an assassination attempt and introducing a political campaign by an eccentric populist presidential candidate as the background to the musical events in the film; these additions involved increasing the number of principal characters from 16 to 24.

Altman then set about casting, and invited anyone playing a singer to write their own songs, with or without the help of his young musical director Richard Baskin. He also encouraged his actors to contribute dialogue to their own scenes; the script was a framework, a springboard, not a definitive text.

The shoot, which also involved hundreds of unpaid extras as audience members for the concert sequences, took seven weeks, and the film came in for less than £2 million. As Altman told Thompson: “Nashville was the first film I really had total control over… Everything was done on the spot, changed on the spot… We’d create events and document them… So it was very like a documentary, with a small crew moving fast.”

Cristine Raines as Mary and Keith Carradine as Tom Frank in Nashville (1975)

The result was a film that seemed quite unlike anything made before it. The impressionistic narrative – either a tangle of multiple storylines or no plot whatsoever, depending on your point of view – successfully evokes the chaos of real life. At the same time, repeat viewings reveal that for all the semblance of spontaneous everyday experience, Nashville has a highly complex, subtle structure which was carefully created to produce maximum thematic resonance.

Nashville speaks volumes about the divisions brought about by differences in wealth, class, gender, race, religion, age, power and political creed.

Notwithstanding initial suggestions that it was simply a semi-satirical portrait of country-and-western culture (and there were some in Nashville who complained its take on the city’s music scene was condescending), the film gloriously fulfilled Altman’s intention that the society it depicted should serve as a microcosm of America itself. Indeed, it speaks volumes about the tensions and divisions brought about by differences in wealth, class, gender, race, religion, age, power, political creed and celebrity; and about the gulf between social realities and the myths propagated about America by politicians and the media (including, of course, Hollywood itself).

American dreams

Of course, while Nashville did feel highly original, it didn’t spring out of nowhere. Both stylistically and thematically, it had its precedents in Altman’s earlier films. More than the other American directors who came to the fore in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Altman was not only an innovator in terms of style and technique but one of the most ‘political’ filmmakers working in fiction features (indeed, throughout his career, he would continue to provide incisive critiques of his homeland and its self-image).

Karen Black as Connie White in Nashville (1975)

Altman was often categorised as someone who made ‘revisionist’ genre films; but if at the time of their release films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye and Thieves like Us appeared to be superior examples of that fashionable ‘New Hollywood’ practice, as time passed it became evident that he was primarily interested not in upending genre tropes but in looking at America – its history, its social structures and values, and their relationship to the American Dream.

For Altman, filmic conventions counted for little; they could be deployed, toyed with, questioned or completely ignored, depending on dramatic or comic requirements. He would simply follow his instincts, which is why his body of work is uneven and littered with several serious misjudgements, and also why so many of his films feel utterly personal and quite unlike anyone else’s. Having worked for years in industrial documentary and television, once he’d established himself with the iconoclastic, inventive and memorably irreverent M*A*S*H, he was never going to follow rules or factory formulas.

Take the shooting at a concert in Nashville’s final moments. There were some who felt it was a contrived, even implausible way of bringing a (seemingly) formless narrative to an end, yet Altman’s decision to include the act of violence – alongside the populist political campaign, with the candidate’s frontman constantly trying to drum up endorsements from the music stars – was not only consistent with his earlier work (most of his films from 1969’s That Cold Day in the Park onwards had ended with a death) but prescient, predating John Lennon’s murder by Mark Chapman by half a decade.

Moreover, the fact that the shooting is never ‘explained’ – though repeat viewings of the film certainly provide hints as to possible motivation – is in line with the film’s impressionistic narrative and its myriad ambiguities. Altman is less interested in offering a ‘reason’ for the assassination attempt than in positing it as yet another example of the many fraught encounters we’ve witnessed and in observing how various characters respond to it.

Inevitably, given Altman’s determination to avoid creating wholly good or wholly bad characters, we may be surprised by – but not incredulous about – some of the responses we see, not least that of the concert audience… which, incidentally, may reflect the response of the movie’s audience.

Michael Murphy as John Triplette and Ned Beatty as Delbert Reese in Nashville (1975)

With the arguable exception of Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), the self-proclaimed BBC journalist forever interpreting whatever she sees and hears with a pretentious blend of prejudice, idiocy and ignorance (she may be regarded as a self-deprecating surrogate for the director himself, also a neophyte to Nashville culture), Altman remains admirably ambivalent about his creations.

In this he’s helped no end by his customarily idiosyncratic – but inspired – casting: faces familiar from his earlier movies (Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Barbara Baxley, Bert Remsen, Gwen Welles, Timothy Brown) sit alongside imports from the TV comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson – the latter already a veteran of The Long Goodbye), established actors like Karen Black, Allen Garfield, Ned Beatty and Keenan Wynn, and country singer Ronee Blakley.

Nashville is intelligent, wickedly funny, unsentimental, compassionate and tender – and it’s arguably Altman’s greatest achievement.

Altman was never one to typecast, nor was he swayed by star power, let alone physical beauty. He chose actors who felt and looked right for the role in question, then encouraged them simply to get on with inhabiting their character. The results include some of the most persuasively naturalistic performances in cinema, Nashville in particular being packed with memorable scenes of subtle nuance and emotional complexity.

And just as the casting and characterisation eschew stereotyping and facile moralising, so the songs, be they country and western, gospel, folk, country-rock or whatever, steer clear of heavy-handed pastiche. Indeed, thanks to some very fine compositions and performances by Blakley, Black, Baskin and Carradine – who won the movie’s sole Oscar for his song I’m Easy – any complaints that Altman’s intention had been to attack the country music scene per se were soon forgotten about.

Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean in Nashville (1975)

Rather than a straightforward polemical satire of country culture, the movie is a massive, multi-textured tapestry depicting a society undergoing some sort of crisis; it is not only the recuperating star Barbara Jean (Blakley) who’s undergoing emotional and psychological turmoil. Families, marriages, friendships, music partnerships, professional alliances and political allegiances are all suffering strain; Nashville, like America, promotes ideals of celebrity, success, material and emotional well-being, equality and unity, but reality often has rather more to do with inequality, exploitation, frustration, loneliness, delusion, deceit and deadly despair.

Some of the songs, not to mention presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign speech (written by Altman’s novelist friend Thomas Hal Phillips, whose brother had run for governor), may promise happiness, but pursuing it can be really tough. As waiter Wade (Robert Doqui) tells his friend Sueleen Gay (Welles) after her pitch-imperfect performance at a fundraiser has gone disastrously wrong, “They’re gonna kill you in this town, girl. They’re gonna use you, you know that!”

The miracle of Nashville is that it deals with all this in a way that is at once intelligent, wickedly funny, unsentimental, compassionate and tender. It’s arguably Altman’s greatest achievement, a culmination of his various technical and stylistic innovations and an expansion and refinement of the singular vision that had been increasingly evident in the features from Countdown (1968), with its early experiments with overlapping dialogue and an open ending, to California Split (1974), a near-plotless account of two strangers joining forces for a gambling spree.

In the nine features he’d made in just over half a decade, he had steadily developed an immediately recognisable creative signature predicated on his idiosyncratic but highly effective approach to narrative and dialogue, casting and characterisation, composition and camera movement, sound and self-reflexive commentary. (From the PA announcements of M*A*S*H and the use of Leonard Cohen’s songs in McCabe & Mrs. Miller to the radio serials heard in Thieves like Us and the jazz numbers performed in the casinos in California Split, Altman had often provided a kind of meta-narrative, anticipating the eloquent use of songs and campaign recordings which distinguishes his country-and-western movie.)

Barbara Harris as Albuquerque and Robert DoQui as Wade in Nashville (1975)

But perhaps what is most extraordinary about Nashville is not so much that his various experiments all came to magnificent fruition, but that it is a ‘big’ film which never feels bloated or ungainly. It’s an intimate epic, one that succeeds thanks to the truthful details of its observations of the interactions of a diverse range of individuals. (Few if any American directors of his era focused so frequently, attentively and respectfully on women characters, while he also probably cast more African-American actors in his films than most white directors.)

‘Big’ for Altman was never about budget or scale, but simply about finding the right way to tell a ‘story’ – or, more precisely, to explore some ideas. Let’s not forget that he also made many films featuring only a handful of primary characters, not to mention Secret Honor (1984) with its cast of one: Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon, the president Altman detested so much that he’d decided to write a political campaign into Nashville.

Lone star

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Nashville’s ambitions, very few directors have followed its example, despite the critical acclaim it received: they were more likely to try to emulate the box-office appeal of Jaws. The movies closest in scale and spirit to Nashville were made by Altman himself: A Wedding (1978), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001) being the most successful, with HealtH (1980) and Prèt-à-Porter (1994) as misfires.

Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton in Nashville (1975)

Otherwise, the pickings are slim. Alan Rudolph – Altman’s assistant director on Nashville and co-writer for its successor, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) – would follow Nashville’s freewheeling multi-character template on a more modest scale in movies like Welcome to L.A. (1976), Choose Me (1984), Trouble in Mind (1985), The Moderns (1988) and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994); the results were ambitious but somewhat variable, given Rudolph’s tendency towards whimsy and fantasy. Later, self-confessed Altman fan Paul Thomas Anderson would do something similar with Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999); but in spite of those films’ many virtues, they lacked the light touch that endowed Nashville with a documentary-like impression of quotidian spontaneity.

As for John Sayles’s City of Hope (1991), Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), all sometimes cited as indebted to Nashville, despite their large casts and narrative experimentation, their respective aims and tonal registers are fundamentally quite different from Altman’s. The mercurial masterpiece that is Nashville, then, would appear to have exerted very little influence on American filmmaking, in spite of its enduring reputation as one of the towering achievements of the modern cinema.

And while there have been multi-character, multinarrative films made in other countries – certain works by directors as different as Michael Winterbottom, Theo Angelopoulos, the Taviani brothers, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Pablo Trapero, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang – they all feel comparatively modest in scale, and give the impression of having been more painstakingly prepared, and certainly more ‘written’, when compared with Altman’s kaleidoscopic evocation of everyday life.

Perhaps, then, Nashville’s near-isolation in terms of style, technique, tone, form and content only goes to show that it was – and indeed remains – impossible to make such a film… unless, that is, the creator was Robert Altman.

Further reading

Karen Black, 1939-2013

Karen Black, 1939-2013

Altman’s fortune: 10 underrated Robert Altman films

By Alex Ramon

Altman’s fortune: 10 underrated Robert Altman films

Ned Beatty brought a spark to his character parts

By Tom Charity

Ned Beatty brought a spark to his character parts

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