Robert Altman’s 1975 ensemble drama Nashville begins with the presidential campaign of fictional Hal Philip Walker, who is never seen but frequently heard through the loudspeakers of a campaign truck that blares his radical ideas: get the lawyers out of Congress! Change the national anthem! He represents the Replacement Party, and he means to replace. With the juxtaposition of old patriotism and new cynicism the film immediately announces that it intends to be about America. But what about America?
Robert Altman’s 1975 ensemble drama Nashville begins with the presidential campaign of fictional Hal Philip Walker, who is never seen but frequently heard through the loudspeakers of a campaign truck that blares his radical ideas: get the lawyers out of Congress! Change the national anthem! He represents the Replacement Party, and he means to replace. Cut to country star Haven Hamilton recording a bicentennial song that goes, “We must be doing something right to last two-hundred years.” With this juxtaposition of old patriotism and new cynicism, the film immediately announces that it intends to be about America. But what about America? It is composed of 160 minutes of half-formed sketches that don’t add up to a movie.
Nashville’s country music community is the setting. It is populated by two dozen major characters, from the upper echelons of celebrity, the lowest dregs of anonymity, and the outer limits of politics. In the opening twenty minutes, they converge like a multi-car pileup — and then there’s a multi-car pileup too. There’s Bill, Mary, and Tom, a pop music trio (Allan Nicholls, Christina Raines, and Keith Carradine); Linnea, a gospel singer (Lily Tomlin); Sueleen, a waitress who dreams of stardom (Gwen Welles); John Triplette, a political organizer (Michael Murphy); and more.
Observing them is a daft reporter from the BBC, Opal (Geraldine Chaplin). At least, she claims to be from the BBC; we only have her word for it, and frankly she’s a dubious journalist. In one scene, she meanders through a bus yard, and into a micro recorder she narrates: “Yellow is the color of sunshine. And yet I see very little sunshine in the lives of all the little black children and white children. I see their lives, rather, as a study in grayness, a mixture of black and ... oh, Christ, no. That’s fascist.” She has a cameraman who is never around when she needs him. In fact, he never shows up at all during the film. Maybe he only exists in her mind, along with her credentials.
A focal point of the drama is Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), an emotionally fragile country superstar who collapses upon her arrival in Nashville — from exhaustion? Dehydration? Stress? It’s never specified. But she’s been singing for her supper since she was a child, and it has visibly taken its toll. Her inner circle includes her husband (Allen Garfield), who is also her manager. He seems controlling, but protective. We don’t learn much about their marriage, or their working relationship for that matter, other than what we see in a few memorable snippets, for instance a confrontation about Barbara’s rival Connie White (Karen Black), who has replaced her in a performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
There are other characters. They could be listed and described, but it would be a waste of words. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know why they matter. We see them in small glimpses and then they flutter away, having made little impact. Some characters I would like to stay with longer, like Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), who has an ailing wife and an insolent niece (Shelley Duvall). Others seem utterly without purpose, like Winifred (Barbara Harris), another singing hopeful who makes appearances throughout the film, each of them equally inconsequential. None of them are complete enough for us to get invested. None of them have enough time on our screen.
There doesn’t seem to be a big picture, just a bunch of little pictures drifting past one another. Consequently, individual scenes work better than the larger story arcs: an on-stage breakdown for Barbara Jean, tragic news for Mr. Green, and a great scene featuring Carradine’s performance of his Oscar-winning song “I’m Easy,” which at least four admiring women in the audience think is about them. Each woman is enthralled, lost in romantic or sexual reveries of a man who was probably thinking of no one more than himself when he wrote it. He is a charming kind of monster, a narcissist, and his serenade to no one is a concise observation of the damage he causes. But then the scene is over, and it’s off to another one.
Altman pioneered the “hyperlink film,” a term coined to describe multi-narrative films that are contingent on the subtle interconnectedness of their characters and storylines. His influence can be seen in the films of Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, Amores Perros), and especially Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote and directed two of the best hyperlink films of the last fifteen years: Boogie Nights and Magnolia. I like hyperlink films. At their best they envision a hidden symmetry; our lives affect other lives affect other lives, and so on, until perhaps it returns to us in ways we can’t perceive.
But a hyperlink film needs a uniting idea to carry us through. Nashville lacks such an idea. It features politics, but isn’t clear about what it wants to say about politics. It features the country music industry, but isn’t clear about that either. It pointedly waves the American flag, but what point is it exactly? I sat through the film waiting for a foothold that never came. At the end there’s a shocking event. Everything, it seems, has been leading up to it, but really nothing has led up to it. The screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury goes in circles around it before finally coming to a stop, and if not there it might have been anywhere else.
This review cannot be ended without discussing the music. Nashville has a brilliant, diverse song score more fully realized than any of the characters who sing them. Most of the songs, remarkably, were composed and performed by the actors, and I wish as much attention had been paid to who the actors were playing when they weren’t on stage. Altman has made other hyperlink movies, including 2006’s great Prairie Home Companion, which was the last movie he made before his death in November of that year. Nashville remains his most famous, but it is a soundtrack in search of a movie.