What is “Nashville” about? Forty-five years later, it remains difficult to answer that question succinctly. I suppose it could be cast as the attempted recruitment of various country music stars to perform at the Parthenon in Nashville at a rally for the fictional presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, running on the newly formed Replacement Party ticket. But that does not even come close to capturing the full scope of this ambitious and expansive picture. Twenty-four central characters have significant speaking roles, and they all are involved in their own storylines that intertwine at various moments and differ from each other in tone and pacing. And numerous themes also are at work: the emergence of anti-establishment politics in response to discontent, the American obsession with celebrity, and the all-too familiar yet inescapable pitfalls of love. It is remarkable that a work crammed with so many different aspects does not succumb to bloating or even feel scattershot. That is because, even with all of the different elements at play, the film is very focused at its core and has a humanist sensibility to tie it all together emotionally.
One focus of “Nashville” certainly is politics, as acknowledged by almost every review. What always irks me when I read write-ups of “Nashville”, though, is that many people claim that the film reflects the 1970s political climate, that it is mirroring the sociopolitical tensions and economic troubles of post-Vietnam America. I am not denying the veracity of these claims, but I do think they undersell the prying eye of the movie, the way it excavates the substratum forming the foundation of American political identity that exists, even forty-five years later, to this day.
Throughout the film, the voice of Hal Phillip Walker is omnipresent. Although never actually shown on screen, his voice continuously emanates from a speaker system mounted on top of a campaign van as it drives around the city. Unchanging in its monotone drawl, it promises to rid Congress of corrupt corporate-owned lawyers, to undo the hegemony of the two-party system, to abolish the undemocratic electoral college, to change the National Anthem, and to take a stand against oil companies—all of this should sound strikingly familiar. There is a reason why Walker is never shown; it is because what he represents is not meant to be tethered to one man in a set of ubiquitous circumstances. His form of ultra-progressivism will exist as long as the basic system—and its discontents—remain intact; it exists as a specter in the political sphere—it can vary in size depending on the circumstances, but it will always be there. The film also showcases the intergenerational strife that such progressivism always illumines, how the younger generation wants to rid the country of corruption and make it a more equal place, and how they go about that through loud protests and picketing while, on the other hand, the older generation believes the young to be disheveled and lacking in real-life experience, with the underlying implication that their anarchic efforts are borne from daydreaming and delusional self-righteousness and will surely result in disaster. It was that way then and it is that way now, and “Nashville” was smart enough to recognize the timelessness of that reality.
The film also demonstrates the preoccupation of the country as a whole with the figureheads and familiar faces of the entertainment industry (even the ditzy British reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) is celebrity-obsessed; perhaps this thematic tidbit could be partially extended to the Western hemisphere itself). Sophisticatedly, the movie is not satisfied with simply cutting to shot after shot of screaming, adoring fans à la “A Hard Day’s Night”, but rather seeks to explicate the source of such frenzied obsession. The answer is at the film’s conclusion, when, after a brutal act of violence sends the crowd into a momentary panic, a singer picks up the microphone and sings a familiar, happy country tune. The crowd hushes and then gradually starts to sing and dance along until everything appears to be hunky-dory yet again. It is the stupor that is the catalyst for obsession with entertainers; it is to be part of something—something seemingly bigger than yourself with other like-minded people—spearheaded by a person you think you really know and identify with, with the end-result of moving away from or forgetting the banalities and horrors of reality. Such is the vicarious anesthetizer that fuels the music and movie industries.
Yet, despite the film’s interest in America as a whole, it also has much concern for each of its twenty-four main characters, with each plotline imparting significant emotional resonance. Who is so cold-hearted as to be unable to empathize with Sueleen (Gwen Welles)—a usually annoying wannabe country singer whose main flaw, unbeknownst to her, is that she cannot sing—when she realizes the crowd does not want music but a striptease and she, in tears from humiliation, obliges? Or, consider what is probably the most frustrating and tragic of all the stories in the movie. Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) is the uncle of Martha (Shelley Duvall), whom he brings to Nashville so that she can visit his dying wife, Esther, in the hospital. Martha, instead, changes her name to “L.A. Joan”, becomes a groupie trying to pursue various rock stars, and wriggles out of or ignores her uncle’s overtures to visit her aunt on her deathbed. This story not only functions as an acute portrayal of the disintegration of familial bonds, but also demonstrates how obsession with celebrities can affect the individual life, not only the country as a sovereign entity. It depicts how such fixation can lead to shallow narcissism and the repudiation of what really matters in life; a blind, unreciprocated adoration in place of familial love.
All of the vignettes in the film land with emotional gusto; part of that success certainly has to do with the impeccable script penned by Joan Tewkesbury, but a significant attribution must also be reserved for director Robert Altman, the legendary filmmaker behind many other American classics. Altman innately understood how to capture emotions on screen, and he knew how to get actors to communicate their characters’ inner state without dialogue. For example, he had the actors, while in character, write the songs that they would be singing in the movie. As a result, not only do the lyrics indirectly foreshadow or provide commentary on events in the movie, but the actors, during the musical performance, subtly and naturally communicate the sentiments that their characters are feeling at the moment: the longing doe-eyed unblinking look of a man as he stares at a woman in the audience performing the song written for her, the wounded pride of a woman who spent weeks or months working on her song only to have it booed—all of this is expressed silently, yet with exquisite clarity.
Altman knew the power of the human face; he knew that the eyes and involuntary facial expressions are the true repositories of emotional expression, not lengthy monologues or impassioned speeches. For example, one of the most powerful moments in the film is a single gaze: a womanizing rock-star finally beds the woman he truly loves, but circumstances force her to leave—as she walks out the door, the man looks at her longingly and we know from his look that even with his many nighttime sexual encounters he will not forget this night, he will not forget her, and he will always ponder what could have been if only fate acquiesced. And not a single word of consequence passed between them.
In general, the focus on the face guided much of the blocking and camera movements in the movie. Altman choreographed the actors’ movements during conversations in such a way that when emotional information is revealed, the relevant character’s face is lighted and framed so as to be a point of interest. Similarly, during parts of a musical number that signify a change in the inner state of the performer, the camera dollies in closer to the subject, with particular emphasis, again, on the face. Such methodologies are simple enough to retain a naturalistic and unostentatious feel, yet still provide the information necessary to denote the characters’ emotions, how they truly feel about others and themselves at that moment. As a result, despite the sheer number of characters, each personage is distinct, memorable, and, above all, human. The overall film is very affecting, but without trying too hard—sentiment sans histrionics.
Thus, even forty-five years later, “Nashville” has more soul, more brains, and more heart than most ensemble films—heck, even almost all films in general—today. It is truly an all-American classic.