Nashville is an exuberant time capsule, a head-first dive into the wonderful, albeit murky, waters of the Nashville, Tennessee music industry. On its own it works as a quintessential Robert Altman film. Like many of the films he would follow it with (Short Cuts being probably the next best example of his style), Nashville is a sprawling ensemble piece, dipping in and out of the lives of several different people. A brilliant display of the voyeurism Altman truly popularized. One that has come to influence film immensely, most notably with Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia and Boogie Nights. The camera, almost lazily, yet with expert, understated precision, flows into a scene and shows the audience what is happening. A concert, marital trouble, a funeral. It doesn’t matter. Altman frames it all with the same observing eye, perfect for this material.
As a simple celebration of country music and the characters that inhabit the art form, Nashville works remarkably well. Yet, when looking back on it today, there is so much more to it than just a celebration of music. At first, the whole film seems to be almost shapeless. A flowing, amorphous mass that floats from character to character, situation to situation, without any real discernible plot. It’s great fun, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, really. When looked at again, one can clearly see just how carefully constructed it actually is. Altman gives everything the veneer of chaos and an almost documentary feel, but when looked at as a whole, Nashville could almost be called taut. Each character adds something, every event slowly builds on itself, working toward the unforgettable conclusion. In the final scenes of the movie, in an event reminiscent of the political climate of the 1970s, a famous country singer is assassinated on stage while performing at a presidential rally. In all of the turmoil and emotional discord, the blood and the fear, everyone begins to sing. They do not shout out in horror and run for protection. No, they sing in unison. An anthem of triumph and emotional outpouring.
When I wrote about Dirty Harry, I talked of how that particular film was a rigid and frightened response to the uneasiness of the 1970s. Nashville is the other side of the coin. A peaceful, hopeful (but not naive), counter to the social and political climate. Watergate and Vietnam aren’t enough to stop the music. It keeps going like some endless guitar solo. The presidential candidate for whom whom the musicians are playing at the end is an enigmatic figure by the name of Hal Philip Walker. He is representative of hope, of change. He isn’t shown once in the entire film, because the hope and change we want isn’t in sight. But it is in the distant horizon, coming. At the end of the film, at this rally, all of the myriad characters throughout the film come together. It is a coming together of America. A menagerie of fists raised in defiance of the violent and corrupt aura flowing through this country. The stage may be covered in blood and the people may be scared, but that does not mean they cannot sing. That does not mean the music will stop, because it won’t. It never will. Through war and peace, storm and calm, the music shall play on. With Nashville, Robert Altman accomplished something wonderful few filmmakers have been able to since then. He has captured America at a time and place in such a way that is still relevant today. His picture is greater than its social message. It is entertaining, soulful, funny, dramatic and so much else. It is Nashville. It is a masterpiece, and there truly is nothing like it.