Robert Altman made plenty of largely plotless films featuring sprawling ensemble casts, but 1975’s Nashville, newly released on a dual DVD/Blu-ray set by the Criterion Collection, is his most virtuosic juggling act. Unfolding over five days and building, loosely, to an outdoor festival that doubles as a rally for a grassroots presidential candidate, the film features so many significant, memorable characters that just naming them all and drawing the connections between them would require a lengthy essay of its own. Part of what makes Nashville such a heady experience is the seemingly effortless way Altman introduces each new thread of his immense tapestry, as his camera glides away from one prickly interaction to pick up somebody else who happens to be strolling by. Altman keeps the baton-passing structure in play for the entire movie, which runs nearly three hours. Saying that a film’s setting is “almost a character” has become a cliché, but Nashville is about Nashville itself, even if Nashvillians didn’t see it that way at the time.
From their perspective, Altman is poking cruel fun at the country-music industry—in particular by having his actors write and perform original songs rather than showcasing the city’s finest. The opening sequence, for example, cuts back and forth between two recording sessions. In the first, Roy Acuff-esque star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) belts a patriotic number about the forthcoming Bicentennial, but keeps stopping to berate the session pianist (played by Richard Baskin, the film’s music supervisor) for making mistakes. In the second, Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) stands as out as the sole white member of a gospel choir, immediately prompting questions about cultural appropriation. And both sessions are observed—until Haven throws her out, that is—by a chatty, clueless BBC journalist (Geraldine Chaplin) whose inane questions and observations implicitly mock the venerable traditions Nashville embodies. It’s easy to see how someone who loves the city might perceive the film as a thinly veiled attack.
All the same, that’s clearly not what Altman had in mind. A few characters are treated with due contempt, especially Chaplin’s idiot reporter (who at one point asks a frustrated musician to sing for her, then gets distracted halfway through when she spots Elliott Gould, appearing in a cameo as himself) and a smarmy political operative played by Michael Murphy. But his sympathies, as usual, lie with the misfits, losers, and dreamers, and his gift is an ability to view them honestly, acknowledging their pathetic aspects without seeming judgmental. Nashville hits its emotional peak during three harrowing public performances. Two of them are simultaneous, with one involving a beloved superstar (Ronee Blakley) experiencing a nervous breakdown onstage, and the other depicting an aspiring but talentless singer (Gwen Welles) who’s pressured into doing a striptease when her voice repels the crowd. The final performance involves a married woman (Tomlin) being quietly serenaded before a live audience by the folk singer (Keith Carradine) who’s in love with her, even as he sleeps with every other woman in sight. Collectively, these scenes are so devastatingly poignant that they put to rest any suggestion that Altman’s goal is to score easy points.
Throughout the film, a campaign bus blaring the voice of presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker (who’s never seen) trundles past the characters, bombarding them with pointed questions about America’s future. Walker’s bizarrely incoherent platform—Change the national anthem! Remove all lawyers from Congress! Abolish the Electoral College! Tax churches!—is concrete and decisive, utterly at odds with the cacophony Altman orchestrates around it. A t its heart, Nashville is about internal contradiction as both a destructive and a creative force, serving up examples, but drawing no firm conclusions. The climactic concert and rally features a shocking act of violence (the foreshadowing of which is one of the movie’s only weak spots), but almost immediately erupts into a joyous celebration headlined by the least likely candidate (okay, the second least likely) in the entire ensemble, who seizes the moment with unstoppable gusto. It’s at once ridiculous and genuinely inspiring—Robert Altman in a nutshell.