The great Robert Altman is regarded as the master of sprawling multi-narrative films and Nashville is probably the film that captures the legendary director’s cinematic style most. This 1975 film follows a group of people as their lives intersect over the course of several days in the spiritual home of American country music.
Nashville features an impressive cast including Keith Carradine, Jeff Goldblum, Henry Gibson, Shelley Duvall, Scott Glenn, Karen Black, Michael Murphy, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin and Geraldine Chaplin. These characters insect during the lead-up to a visit of a presidential candidate, a character who is heard but never seen through the films epic 2 hour and 40 minute running time.
Altman really shows a skill for handling some many plot-lines. None of the characters feel short changed, even though some have more opportunities to shine than others. Altman’s film uses the Nashville scene as a way of showing who these characters are. We can see how they are affected as they come into and then leave each other’s lives.
Music is central to Nashville and Altman uses it as a way of heightening the emotional relationships between each of the characters and also showing their superficiality. The film opens with Henry Gibson’s country star recording a patriotic ditty as saccharinely patriotic as an American flag coated in sugar. However, a counter-point to this is Keth Carradine’s rendition of the Oscar and Grammy-winning hit, I’m Easy. Altman uses the song as a way of showing how several characters see their relationship with Carradine’s character – even though the reality of this is very different. It’s a commentary of the artist and the art.
Altman’s opus must have been a nightmare to shape in the editing room. Overlapping dialogue and a complex web of narrative strands weave together, but if the director had any issues they aren’t apparent on screen. It’s a wonderful cacophony of cinematic elements brought together in an expert way. It’s precision filmmaking, but the final product feels incredibly loose. It feels effortless.
Few directors would ever be given the freedom to make a film like Nashville today. Maybe Atlman’s protege, Paul Thomas Anderson, but very few. Even if they were given that power, it’s doubtful that they could manage to orchestrate proceedings in such an expert way. The political scene is also different now. The US in 1975 was post-Kennedy, post-Nixon and post-Vietnam War, three elements which loom large over Nashville. It’s reactionary cinema at its best. Nashville is powerful filmmaking which plays with technical and narrative rules, breaking them and delivering a film that is rightly held as a classic.