Directed by Robert Altman
Writing about Robert Altman films frightens me. It’s like listening to someone give a passionate, gravely serious speech and then they suddenly drop a one liner that you don’t realize is a one liner and you’re the only one in the room not laughing. So you prepare yourself for the next one liner, and you’re always on the verge of kind of laughing or smiling at everything the speaker says. Then he ends it with an appeal to our shared humanity, and everyone nods solemnly while you’re still waiting for when to laugh. Altman’s films remind me of the Coen Brothers’ own films because they do a good job of balancing drama and humor, sometimes at the same time.
Nashville isn’t about any one person, but it’s also not really about the city. It’s about people who are from the Tennessee city as well as people who flock there from abroad, looking for something. You have several aspiring country singers, several established country singers, a few people from California (it’s always commented on that they are from California), you have a couple movie stars, a country star who is ready to head back home to New York and a BBC reporter. These characters are from all over. There’s even a quiet motorcyclist played by Jeff Goldblum who I don’t remember ever saying a single line. He apparently lives in between old school buses and quietly drifts here and there.
What I think the film is about is music, politics, religion, groups of people, performances, audiences and overall, institutions. The film breaks down each of these institutions by comparing them and undermining them. The film is musical in the same way Inside Llewyn Davis is musical. It’s not an actual musical, but many of the characters are musicians, so we watch them perform. The songs are occasionally silly but more often meaningful and sometimes powerful.
There are a bunch of shots of audiences watching. We see them watch performances at the airport, the Opry, an outdoor amphitheater, the Parthenon, church, inside a recording studio and at a political gathering that turns burlesque.
The film opens with politics. There’s a Replacement Party candidate named Hal Philip Walker running for President. A van featuring his name on the side drives around town with a voice preaching Walker’s campaign promises. He’s a pretty radical guy (though we never actually see him), and his campaign feels like a parody of political promises. He has some momentum, though, and there is a large faction of people who support him, though again, I don’t think we ever meet these people. While this goes on we meet several Nashville mainstays. There’s Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who’s the unofficial mayor of the musical town, and we meet him as he performs a song about America, but then he snaps at the lackadaisical piano player, showing a bit of his dark side. There’s Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) who quickly faints, stays in the hospital where she spews hatred towards other performers, struggles to talk to an audience that only wants her to sing and ultimately gets shot.
The scene when Jean won’t sing and instead tries to tell meandering, pointless stories is important, I think. The audiences in most of these scenes observe the performance and do nothing else. This is the first time we see the audience exert control. They boo her, forcing her husband/manager to come out and take the mic. In a later scene, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), a Californian organizing a fundraiser for Hal Walker, books an aspiring singer named Sueleen Gay who simply cannot sing. She performs at the fundraiser and is booed, much like Barbara Jean, but Triplette and Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), a man working alongside him, urge her to strip, which she does after receiving a promise to let her sing with Barbara Jean at the Parthenon. It’s a difficult scene to watch. The crowd consumes her, and yet these are supposed to be the people supporting Walker, the candidate that so many others love. It’s another scene of the crowd clawing at the performer, taking something away from her. It also undermines politics. This is a large group of men acting with their primal, more unsettling instincts, and these are the only people we clearly know to support Walker.
The final performance at the Parthenon features a huge Hal Walker banner. Barbara Jean’s husband/manager is pissed when he sees the banner, because he doesn’t want Jean to perform anywhere with political implications. Many of the performers try their best to stay out of politics, not wanting it to affect their image. Everyone we’ve met in the film appears at this final gathering, implying that they are interested in politics to a degree.
I guess what stood out to me is that no one cares about politics, but they all don’t care the same amount, so their not caring doesn’t stand out. No one takes a stance against politics, they just tolerate it like they tolerate any number of annoying fame-seekers. The person running for President is no different than the person trying to become a famous singer.
There is a moment in this film when, at Haven Hamilton’s estate, there is a party attended by the actor Elliot Gould. It’s always a little shocking when an actor plays him or herself because you’re used to seeing them onscreen and immediately disassociating them from who you know them to be. Julie Christie also shows up as herself. It’s another way to breakdown an idea or an institution. When you realize Gould is playing himself you have to adjust your perspective on him and on the world constructed in this film. Just because he’s playing himself doesn’t mean he’s not playing a version of himself, and suddenly Elliot Gould is more of a character than a real person. It forces you to question what you know about a person beyond the image they give off. Is Elliot Gould like this character in real life? Or is this a comic version of him?
People like Haven Hamilton and Barbara Jean as well as the trio of Bill, Tom and Mary (a successful musical group) are all playing versions of themselves. Everything is fake, to some degree. Tom (Keith Carradine) is young, attractive and desired, yet he longs for an older woman. He plays a sincere, delicate song at a small show to get her attention, and it works. It feels like an honest moment as he pines for her. She sleeps with him at his hotel, but then she says she needs to leave, and before she can even finish dressing, he’s already calling another girl. It’s all a bit of a lie, and the moment is crumbled as we see that he probably doesn’t really feel about her the way he claims to feel in the song. One counterpoint, however, is that he avoids telling the girl on the phone he loves her (when she says she loves him), and he resists telling another girl he loves her when she says she loves him, but he does tell the woman he pines for that he loves her, though in sign language.
So a bunch of things are being taken down. Politics are silly, musicians can be petty, love isn’t always mutual, religion is a performance just like anything else, etc. At the end, after Barbara Jean is shot, another aspiring singer takes the mic amidst the chaos and begins singing a surprisingly touching song, “It Don’t Worry Me.” The crowd and a choir joins in, mollifying the potential for more violence and panic after the gunshots. It could suggest any number of things, but to me it’s a demonstration of how these institutions (entertainment, politics, religion), despite their flaws and the flaws of the people who prop them up, can still and do still help us in important ways. We heal through music, religion and we generally have hope in politics. Even when things aren’t going so well, there’s hope in a certain candidate.
Music identifies how we feel, even when we can’t identify it ourselves, religion reminds us how to live (depending on your level of belief, I suppose) and how to be okay, and politics makes us think about the future. Something like that. These organizations and groups are horribly flawed, and it’s all a pretense, but there’s enough forward momentum that it’s beneficial in the long run. The people making music may not be perfect, but they don’t have to be for you to get out of it what you need, and the same goes for politics and religion.
At the same time, there is some really messed up stuff that goes on in each of these industries. I guess the point is that the ideological point of each industry is stronger than any one individual.
Then again, this is a Robert Altman film, and I might have completely missed the point.