Release Date: June 11, 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: ABC Motion Pictures
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Nashville. Even with the trademarks of a Robert Altman film – large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue – there’s still something ineffable about this film I haven’t seen before. The general story involves the lives of several musicians, aspiring musicians, music biz people, political campaigners, and hangers-on on Nashville over a period of several days. The movie isn’t exactly plotless, as it does have a story to tell, but the plot is slow and messy not unlike real life.
Nashville is more of a character study of the 24 people in the movie with an underlying focus on celebrity culture. I’m glad this movie was made in Nashville instead of Los Angeles or New York. As a country music hub, Nashville is probably unique in that it has a strong celebrity culture while also being small enough where everyone keeps ending up in the same places. Or at least it was in the 1970s, as Nashville has grown in population in the intervening decades.
The film is full of musical performances, and interestingly the actors were tasked with writing their own songs and filming them in live concert settings. I don’t know much about country music, but honestly a lot of these songs sound like they could’ve been standards, so the soundtrack is worth seeking out. The movie also has political undertones in that a third-party candidate, Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) is campaigning in Nashville with a car traveling around the city reading his platform promises as a throughline through the film. The final scene is also set at a political rally (more on that below with a huge spoiler warning).
Among the cast, the standout performances include:
- Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, a singer in a gospel choir who is raising two deaf children and is in an unhappy marriage with Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) a lawyer in the music business and organizer for the Walker campaign. Linnea is by far the most fully-realized character and surprisingly this is Tomlin’s first movie role after years in television.
- Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean, who is kind of the “sweetheart” star of country music who is in and out of hospitals with mental health issues.
- Karen Black as Connie White, another top female vocalist in the country scene who is set up as the rival to Barbara Jean.
- Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, a male country star who represents the Nashville old guard.
- Keith Carradine, a younger folk rock star who is party of a trio with a married couple, Bill and Mary (Allan F. Nichols and Cristina Raines) but wants to go solo. He also is Lothario who tries to use his charm and vulnerable persona to coax women into bed with him, including Linnea.
- Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a young woman eager to get into the music business despite the fact that she sings off-key. Men take advantage of her ambition to give her opportunities to perform where she’s objectified for her beauty.
- Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a BBC radio reporter who is doing a story on Nashville who inserts herself into many scenes and blurts out the most loathsome things.
- The movie also features a baby-faced Scott Glenn in a small role as a Vietnam vet who is a big fan of Barbara Jean and the equally youthful Jeff Goldblum in a part where he never speaks but frequently appears around town on a motorized tricycle.
Even though I read a summary of the movie and knew what was coming, the end of the movie is still quite a shocker. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) A disturbed loner we see throughout the movie (David Hayward) shoots and presumably kills Barbara Jean when she’s performing before a political rally. What happens next, beggars belief. Instead of people clearing the area, they stay together and sing. This is for a big twist in the film because a straggly aspiring singer named Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is able to take the mic and prove that she’s actually talented despite appearances. But I also recalled that after the University of Texas tower massacre in 1966 that the school never canceled any classes. So the idea that people would want to go on with what they’re doing despite the violent attack seems true to the time.
Nashville is a long movie, and at times slow-going and just a bit too much. Nevertheless, it is artfully crafted and undeniably a great film. I’m glad I had the time to watch it.