Murder on Music Row
In 1975, as America stepped out of the shadow of Watergate and into the hollow pride of the bicentennial, filmmaker Robert Altman turned his gaze on Music City and conjured a bleak analogy for the national mood called Nashville.
“Minnie Pearl and Hank Snow…thought we were criticizing them, but I thought I was showing what was going on in America,” Altman says in the supplementary material included in the newly released, crisp, cleaned-up DVD version. Hearing Altman (M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, The Player) talk about the making of Nashville a quarter-century later, what’s remarkable is how little he actually cared about country music, but how profound a statement he ended up making about the relationship between a nation and its art.
The film follows 24 characters, and it’s fun to view Nashville as a film a clef about the country scene. Ronee Blakely plays Barbara Jean, a Loretta Lynn-like icon on the verge of a meltdown. Henry Gibson is the Roy Acuff-esque Haven Hamilton. Timothy Brown is an uneasy, Charley Pride-like African-American country singer. Karen Black is Connie White, Barbara Jean’s Barbara Mandrell-ian rival, and Keith Carradine is Tom, the Lothario leader of a CSN-ish folk-rock trio.
Orbiting around these figures is a gospel singer (Lily Tomlin), a Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn), a troubled loner (David Hayward) and a political fixer (Michael Murphy) organizing a concert-cum-political rally for a mysterious presidential candidate who spouts Ross Perot-like homilies (“we all know how to make a watch, but we don’t know the time of day”). With unerring skill, Altman balances all these elements and more as the characters are inexorably drawn to the climax, a concert at Nashville’s Parthenon that turns into a political assassination.
“I wasn’t looking for good music; not that they make a lot of it down there,” Altman says on the DVD. “We wanted to get a cross-section. Some good songs and some bad songs, which is what most of the music in Nashville is.”
True enough, there are some great performances in the film, particularly by Vassar Clements’ group and the Misty Mountain Boys. Carradine’s “I’m Easy” won an Oscar as best song. And Altman was especially blessed in his casting of Gibson, whose own songs “Keep A-Goin'” and “200 Years” expertly lampoon country cliches.
Blakely’s songs — “Dues”, “Tape Deck In His Tractor”, and the deeply felt “My Idaho Home” — embody the essence of country music. Altman’s camera lingers lovingly as she performs her numbers, and while the director might not care about country music, he does admire talent. In Blakely’s Oscar-nominated performance, we get the incarnation of the yearning for something better and something lost that is at the heart of both the film and the best country music.
Throughout Nashville, we see unresolved issues that reflect the larger national malaise: Barbara Baxley’s country matriarch Miss Pearl still pines for the Kennedys, Glenn’s Vietnam vet is sneered at, Brown’s black country singer retreats when he’s called an “Uncle Tom,” Carradine’s character beds a succession of women in a series of joyless unions, Hayward’s loner is estranged from his mom, and Barbara Jean keeps a smile plastered on her face even as she’s being crushed by celebrity. When shots finally do ring out at the concert, it’s a surprise that there turns out to be only one gunman and not 24.
The shootings that punctuate the film remain shocking and are still likely to evoke controversy, especially among viewers who resent ambiguity. Is the assassination a comment on the gulf between alienated spectator and idealized performer, or a consequence of the contamination of popular culture by dirty politics?
When John Lennon was shot a few years after the release of Nashville, Altman was asked if he felt responsible. He still wonders why no one heeded the film’s warning. Twenty-five years later, in a post-Lennon, post-Columbine world, watching the movie’s denouement, as Barbara Harris’ character leads the dead-eyed, post-shooting Nashville audience in a chorus of “It Don’t Worry Me”, Altman’s point comes into focus.
It still doesn’t worry us as much as it ought to.