Nashville 25th Anniversary Edition
When I got my first VCR over thirty something years ago I began to collect movies. One of the very first I got was Robert Altman’s Nashville. At that time it was in full screen and mono only. Now, DVD technology has returned this classic to the home in the only manner befitting such an epic. It is difficult to explain the plot. You really have to experience this film many times to get all the involved story lines weaving in and out of each other. There are over 24 main characters in this film. The drift into and out of each other’s stories much as people come and go in real life. The overall effect is stunning. Central to the action is country music star Barbara Jean (Ronnee Blakley) who just recovered from serious burns is once again on the brink of a nervous breakdown. By her side is her husband/manager Barnett (Allen Garfield). Her fellow country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is definitely the cock of the walk. He struts around always showing he has the power in that town. Along the way we see everything from a runaway wife (Donna Denton), a waitress that aspires to sing except she has no talent (Gwen Wells), a mother of two deaf children (Lily Tomlin) and a host of other (now) famous faces. While you may expect so many characters and storylines to come off as muddled Altman holds everything together perfectly. The stories complement each other; they form a tapestry Americana in a way seldom seen in films. Although the film is now 25 years old this movie is as meaningful now as during its initial release.
Recently it achieved an honor long recognized by true cinematic aficionados since the age of the laser disc, inclusion in the much lauded and highly respected Criterion collection. Initially this designation was usually afforded to foreign films or some of the more enigmatic and esoteric films. Recently Criterion has expanded their criteria to include movies that have manifested some profound effect on the cinematic arts or the fan’s appreciation of the medium. This permitted titles like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and the fifties science fiction cult classic, ‘The Blob’ to be re-released under this well respected banner. Now ‘Nashville’ has been included and rightfully so. Robert Altman made a significant and lasting effect on filmmaking eschewing the traditional rules and crafting his movies his way. Alternating dialogue delivered as it appears on the script one line neatly after the next was tossed out in favor of how people often speaking in real life, especially when excited; overlapping, stepping on each other’s sentences. There is a story that Altman was replaced in the science fiction movie, ‘Countdown’ was at least in part for his insistence on using this technique. He sharpened to perfection in M*A*S*H but it is present here with a natural feel of real people to it. Some filmmakers strive to capture the look and feel of a well-staged play but Altman captured the cacophony of people involved in entwined storyline are prone to produce.
Even with such a perfectly cast film as this one there are bound to be a few stand out performances. Tomlin’s first foray into a dramatic role is stunning. She brings such humanity to the role that the viewer cannot help but to be deeply moved. Keith Carradine brings to his role of soft rock singer Tom a love hate relationship with the audience. Ever charming his Tom beguiles his way into the bed of almost every female in the cast. Yet the way he phones another woman while one conquest is still in the room is despicable. His self-centered manner of life is in detail is thoroughly shown as a trap, a many that lives to bed the opposite sex and yet can never truly know love. Chaplin as the BBC reporter is so phony that you want to hate her yet you wind up having nothing but piety for this shell of a human being. Then there is Black as Connie White. Forever in the shadow of the much bigger star Barbara Jean she tries with what little talent she has to make and keep a name for herself. You will have to watch this movie over and over to get all the nuances of the performances. Even with all these viewings you will not be bored. There is a subtle yet strongly woven thread that binds this amazing tapestry together; an odd man riding a three wheel motorcycle. He present in all the different plot lines and individual threads that create the overall work, without dialogue he is a constant reminder that all of these stories and the myriad of characters are interconnected. This inexplicable rider is a very young Jeff Goldblum in his first screen role. Another vehicle is part of the movie’s connective tissue. There is a white van with a tree on its side rolling through the streets between the scenes pertaining to the main story lines. It is for presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker, its loud speaker blaring stating issues for the campaign and pointed observations about our society. If you listen closely to them and string them together this grass roots candidate makes sense.
The soundtrack for this movie was exception and could stand on its own as a country western offering. Each actor was charged with writing and performing their material. The song written and performed by Keith Carradine, ‘I’m Easy’, won the Academy Award for Best Song that year and made it to the popular music charts. This film is driven by music but is not a typical musical. The performances are naturally derived and completely within context of the story. Considering, as the title makes clear, the film is made in and about a city built on music, Nashville. Altman captured the many facets of this unique city; the established stars, the hopeful wannabees and the people behind the scenes that make it all possible. Throughout it all a silent man on a motor tricycle and the unseen man hidden in a van providing words of common sense; the unorthodox man in plain sight and the wise sage unseen tie together the diverse lives of people inexorably bound together,
Robert Altman is one of the truly inventive geniuses of modern film. Most of his early movies are genuine groundbreakers. Although not as creative today as in his heyday in the seventies Nashville represents the height of his creative impact on cinema. Among his triumphs are M*A*S*H and the cult classic Brewster McCloud. Sure he has had his failures, just look at Popeye, but with Nashville you get the cream of the cream. It was a genuine joy to see this film in the proper 2.35:1 ratio again! Each section of the frame contains well-timed action. The film runs the gamut of very dark comedy, drama and even slapstick. The way he has the long list of characters enter and leave each other’s world and yet all gather together for the climax is not only believable but as well choreographed as a ballet. In typical Criterion fashion this release is as close to the theatrical original as possible.