So far, Robert Altman is winning the award for my favorite filmmaker of this marathon – I almost want to say favorite discovery, which sounds weird when talking about someone of Altman’s reputation and stature, but it is true that I hadn’t seen any of his pre-90s films until now. And of all the films so far in this marathon that I hadn’t seen before, Altman’s have been consistently my favorites – Nashville only confirms and expands that.
Nashville is one of Altman’s most renowned films, and often cited for its use of a vast interlocking ensemble cast (something of an Altman trademark), yet even with that reputation in my head when I sat down to watch it, Nashville still managed to exceed my expectations. The setting is the lead-up to a political rally for the fictitious Replacement Party in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. Meanwhile, various musicians and singers weave in and out of recording studios, live shows, traffic jams, parties, personal breakdowns, career disappointments, and affairs.
The balance that Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury find among all the different characters, giving each enough time and back story to make us feel we know them, yet never letting any single character become more central than any other, is nothing short of astounding. By using an extremely simple overall plot (three days of vignettes loosely tied together by the recurring political campaigning, though even that isn’t as central as I expected it to be) and letting the story flow from the characters, Nashville manages to avoid the pitfalls that many ensemble films fall into – especially that of an overly complicated plot preventing us from feeling connected to the multitude of characters.
Another danger that the film mostly avoids is that of letting the characters fall into stereotypes, which would be an easy way to deal with characters who each only have a handful of minutes onscreen to make an impression. Many of the characters are specific “types” (the fading star with emotional health problems, the womanizing lead singer, the overenthusiastic reporter, the wanna-be singer who can’t sing, the established singer who wants the young upstarts off his lawn, etc.), but through their ongoing interactions with different groups throughout the film, they develop beyond that one-off type into people you recognize and care about when they turn up again.
Though I said none of the stories or characters are given undue precedence above the others, there are still a few that stand out, either due to the iconic nature of the role or the strength of actor who plays it. The ditzy and self-centered BBC reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin either appears more often throughout the film than most of the characters or is simply more attention-grabbing – I’d believe either until I saw a chart of on-screen times per character. She’s quite pushy, yet her rudeness and unconscious offensive comments in regards to minorities come across as simultaneously incisive and hilarious. Meanwhile, Lily Tomlin carries a fair bit of dramatic weight in the film as a singer whose husband is also in the music business, but who considers dallying with womanizer Keith Carradine – her facial reactions when she goes to meet him at a club and finds him out with the reporter are wonderful to watch. Then the failure/success pair of characters, who I don’t believe ever meet, together capture the dual face of show business – Gwen Welles’ waitress who wants desperately to make it as a singer but doesn’t have the talent her friends led her to believe she had and Barbara Harris’ dogged wanna-be who seizes the moment when the moment is right and brings the film home.
There are so many more, because everyone really has their moments. I’m sure if I were more familiar with country music I would be able to more quickly recognize the real-life inspirations for the characters; I recognized the Peter, Paul and Mary group, so I know there are more connections to be made. In addition, a rewatch would probably help me get a better grasp on the political undertones in play as unseen candidate Hal Walker’s speeches punctuate the action periodically. Even just focusing on the overall flow of story and characters, though, was immensely satisfying, and the rest of the marathon will be hard-pressed to come up with a film with such a winning combination of humor and poignancy or that I enjoy as much as I did Nashville.