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Nashville is rereleased in UK cinemas from 25 June.

Considering the extraordinary significance of Nashville in the history of popular music since the late 1950s, it’s remarkable that the cinema has paid Music City so little attention until recently.

Altman’s gigantic parody Nashville belatedly restores the balance; his portmanteau plot is crammed with samples taken from every level of Nashville society, revealed in affectionate detail bordering on caricature in a manner that would surely delight Norman Rockwell.

The film interweaves its characters in a complex, discursive manner, with no special emphasis on any single story; the result is an intriguing kaleidoscope of brief encounters, glimpses of independent lives which occasionally (as with the hilarious traffic-jam sequence) exist in precarious parallel but otherwise remain mysterious.

We never know, for example, anything positive about the smiling conjurer who drifts into town on his bizarre threewheeler, nor can we be clear about the status of the casual Black commentator Wade, who seems to have advice to offer to everybody. And about the motives of the young gunman who suddenly goes berserk at the final concert we can only speculate, despite having seen plenty of him throughout the film; might it, perhaps, be something to do with his mother?

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

The style is something new for the unpredictable Altman, and at times it looks as if he’s taken his cue from Jacques Tati, but as an attempt to come to terms with the contrasts and contradictions of Nashville society it gives an often engaging illusion of authenticity – even if the faces and the music are usually more eloquent than the words.

For audiences knowing little of Music City, the film will seem horribly plausible but occasionally obscure, a redneck roundup of misguided, fallible strugglers who would be as repellent as the M.A.S.H. unit were it not for the same redeeming qualities of clownish vulnerability. For Nashville enthusiasts, part of the fun of it all will come from identifying the references (Barbara Jean’s breakdown and Raven’s ridiculous hairpiece, for example, have clear origins among Nashville’s royalty), and picking out the great musicians of country music – among them Lloyd Green, Weldon Myrick, Johnny Gimble and Vassar Clements – working in such landmarks as the new Opry auditorium.

Nevertheless, Altman’s authenticity is questionable on at least two counts: the songs (many of them written by the cast themselves) are splendidly banal but seldom approach the astonishing awfulness of country music at its worst, while the costumes of the film’s performers would make a poor showing beside the rhinestone confectionery of such as Hank Snow and Dolly Parton.

Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean in Nashville (1975)

In defence of country music, one must also remark that it is normally sung with vastly more skill than is demonstrated by Altman’s cast, although their performances are surprisingly successful, while the fact that no genuine Nashville stars are either seen or referred to (despite walk-on appearances from Altman’s Hollywood friends) gives the film a nagging undercurrent of inaccuracy.

Characteristic of Altman’s work, Nashville swings unpredictably between a certain kind of overkill (the unexplained assassination, rammed home with the song It Don’t Worry Me) and, at the other extreme, scenes of quite appealing delicacy, mostly derived from the beautiful performances of a whole range of unfamiliar faces (an exception is Keenan Wynn, superbly self-contained as the bereaved husband).

Central to the film, and perhaps to all Altman’s films, is the unexpected sequence with Linnea’s deaf-mute children, their aching isolation and their cumbersome attempts to break out of it; painfully they speak not only for every other character in the film (including the invisible Hal Phillip Walker) but also, not without coincidence, for the country music tradition itself.

Further reading

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.

By Geoff Andrew

The sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville

Sight and Sound November 2021

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