In June of 1975, Robert Altman’s “Nashville” was released. Written by Joan Tewkesbury, it depicts the lives of 24 characters surrounding the local music scene and a fictional political campaign over five days. In the spring of 2015, I was a sophomore Theater major in college, adding a Film minor to finally give in to my lifelong draw to cinema. Through my ever-growing obsession with film history (particularly films of the ‘60s and ‘70s) and the Criterion Collection, I discovered Altman’s magnum opus. There are films you come across in your life that change the way you look at the world, change the way you look at film, and open up your mind to all that can be possible in the art of filmmaking. For me, that film is “Nashville”.
“Nashville” came from the minds of Altman and his frequent collaborator Tewkesbury after she expressed her interest to him about making a film surrounding the titular city. From there, he tasked her with visiting and observing the city, with her trip diary being the basis for much of the screenplay. Due to Altman’s typical improvisational style, the script acted as more of a blueprint, though Tewkesbury’s experiences viewing the city and the music scene as an outsider were a core part of the screenplay and the film as a whole.
The film was shot on location in the summer of 1974, featuring an ensemble cast of Altman favorites and staples of American ‘70s cinema (Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Shelley Duvall, among others). While a lot of the film has a free-flowing structure, there are several core plot points and moments that tie the film together: there’s the return of country star, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), during a personal breakdown; there’s the rock trio, Bill, Mary, and Tom (Allan F. Nicholls, Cristina Raines, and Keith Carradine), on the brink of collapse due to a love triangle and one member’s rebellious womanizing ways; there are also two very different women, Albuquerque and Sueleen Gay (Barbara Harris and Gwen Welles), on the quest to become famous country singers.
They all come together through the political campaign of the fictional, Hal Phillip Walker, a presidential hopeful running for the “Replacement Party”. The never-seen candidate is personified by a constantly moving van playing his speeches through speakers on a loop (written with some hilarious satire) and pretty young girls eagerly handing out paraphernalia. This brings the story together with the arrival of political consultant, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), hoping to help sway Tennessee voters with a big benefit concert that will culminate at the end of the film. Many of our cast of characters join, though mostly through the desire for publicity or redemption and next to nothing about actually supporting Walker.
Though fictional, the film blurs the line between narrative and documentary through the use of improvisation, live music performances, and its style. The camerawork evokes a documentary style with the use of slow zooms, unique angles, and an observing eye. It always feels as though you are sitting aside watching the action as it echoes Tewkesbury’s Nashville visit.
The film was even a major Oscar nominee, garnering five nominations and one win for Best Original Song for Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy”. The film is a part of one of the best Best Picture nomination fields of all time, including “Barry Lyndon,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Jaws,” and the eventual winner, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“.
So, what at age nineteen made me fall in love with “Nashville”? I had to look back at where I was in my movie watching journey; constantly watching and taking in as much information as I could. I was so taken aback by the film and how different it is, but it also feels familiar. I was blown away at the idea of making a film that weaves through so many characters and conversations. That you could make a film that says so much in such a simple way with people I feel like I know.
The characters and their situations feel real and timeless, perhaps due to the amount of improvisation and authentic locations. Despite taking place in the 1970s, and in a place I’m not familiar with, about a subject I’m not necessarily a fan of (although country music then and country music now are very different things), it feels current and easy to understand.
I watched it three times that year, studying its essence and discovering more each time, but I hadn’t watched it since. I recently revisited it, partially for this article, and to see if my opinions on it had changed, and I look at it differently now – anyone could. I feel like a lot of young people looked at the world (and especially politics) very differently pre-2016. Watching a film about a “crazy lunatic” candidate that keeps winning primaries and is trying to appeal to working-class Americans who feel their voices aren’t being heard is…well, eerily familiar. “Nashville’s” political themes were certainly relevant at the time, but resonate even more now.
I wonder whether I love the film more now than I did then. On the one hand, I saw it for the first time at exactly the right time. I was watching so many films, so eager to learn, and taking every opportunity to sit down and watch something. I almost envy that girl and all that motivated optimism. On the other hand, I’ve grown so much, in my knowledge of film and as a person overall. I’ve seen even more and can recognize the films and directors inspired by this and Altman’s other works (most notably Paul Thomas Anderson). My love for “Nashville” is in the DNA of what I look for in cinema and what I gravitate towards.
If you haven’t seen “Nashville,” obviously, I would recommend it. It’s currently only available to rent on Fandango Now, but the Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD are available to purchase if that’s your thing (and it’s a terrific edition). The best way I could describe what I truly feel about this film can be summed up by Roger Ebert in his original 1975 review: “…after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser. It’s that good a movie.”
Have you seen “Nashville” yet? If so, what do you think? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Casey and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @CaseyLeeClark