Nashville (Criterion Collection)

Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Joan Tewkesbury
Stars: Barbara Baxley (Lady Pearl), Ned Beatty (Delbert Reese), Karen Black (Connie White), Ronee Blakley (Barbara Jean), Timothy Brown (Tommy Brown), Keith Carradine (Tom Frank), Geraldine Chaplin (Opal), Robert DoQui (Wade), Shelley Duvall (L. A. Joan), Allen Garfield (Barnett), Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton), Scott Glenn (Glenn Kelly), Jeff Goldblum (Tricycle Man), Barbara Harris (Albuquerque), David Hayward (Kenny Fraiser), Michael Murphy (John Triplette), Allan Nicholls (Bill), Dave Peel (Bud Hamilton), Cristina Raines (Mary), Bert Remsen (Star), Lily Tomlin (Linnea Reese), Gwen Welles (Sueleen Gay), Keenan Wynn (Mr. Green)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1975
Country: U.S.
Nashville Criterion Collection Blu-ray
NashvilleWhen Robert Altman’s Nashville was released in 1975, there had never been a film quite like it. At the time, Altman was already known as a critically celebrated, countercultural force with the war satire M*A*S*H (1970) and his deconstruction of both the Western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and film noir in The Long Goodbye (1973). His style of long takes, naturalistic violence, and ensemble acting were already well-established. Still, nothing could have prepared Hollywood for the impact Nashville would have. Part comedy, part drama, part social commentary, and part musical, it is a film that truly defies categorization or simplistic descriptions.

Nashville’s most daring conceit is the brash manner in which it breaks the general rule that Hollywood movies focus on a small, easily manageable set of characters. Altman’s film follows the lives of no less than 24 major characters over a period of five days. In two hours and forty minutes, the film traces the narrative trajectories of all these characters, managing to make each one of them unique and interesting with only minimal screen time. The screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury is an incredible piece of work, intertwining all of these lives against the backdrop of Nashville, Tennessee, the country music capital of the world, during an especially heated presidential campaign in the year of America’s 200th birthday (overwrought patriotic imagery is everywhere).

The problem with Nashville at the time was that it was too revolutionary (which is probably why New Yorker critic Pauline Kael loved it so much and audiences didn’t). When United Artists head of production David Picker first read the screenplay, he rejected it with a note that said, “This is not a script.” UA refused to make the film, and Altman ended up making it on his own with ABC Pictures. And, according to Tewkesbury, after Picker saw the premiere, he sent Altman a telegram that said simply, “I was wrong.”

While Nashville is primarily about the show business world of country music, it has the kind of scope and ambition that allows it to turn the music scene into a microcosm of the United States in the mid-1970s. The twin political upheavals of Vietnam and Watergate are written all over the film, especially in the scenes that focus on a radical third-party presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker of the fictional Replacement Party. Walker, who is never seen physically, becomes a thematic force, as one of his campaign vans constantly lurks in the background, its loud speakers blaring his platform based on taxing churches, changing the national anthem, and removing all lawyers from government. It is only appropriate that the film climaxes at a Walker campaign rally in front of Nashville's Parthenon where unexpected violence breaks out, completely disrupting any sense of narrative momentum and leaving the fate of every major character dangling in unresolved limbo.

That Altman was able to get away with such a radical reworking of cinematic narrative is amazing. That it worked so well that other filmmakers of vastly different stripes have followed in his footsteps (think Steven Spielberg’s 1941 or P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia or Richard Curtis’s Love Actually) is testament to his strength of vision and skill behind the camera. As much as Nashville is a pastiche—a pasted together assortment of narrative shards that give a sense of life, but not of story—it is still more compelling than most traditional three-act narratives that feature closure and resolution. Like life itself, nothing is resolved in Nashville, nor should it be.

And, like life, Nashville is populated with a wide assortment of characters, all of who stick in your mind long after the film is over. From Geraldine Chaplin’s aggressive BBC documentary filmmaker, to Lily Tomlin’s unfulfilled gospel singer, to Keith Carradine’s womanizing folk-rocker, each character is fascinating and memorable. Some of the saddest and funniest scenes involve Gwen Welles as a struggling singer whose desire for fame and fortune blinds her to the obvious fact that she is utterly untalented. Ditto the sequences involving Ronee Blakley as a country diva whose health problems are forcing her professional life onto shaky ground; the sequence in which she begins to have a breakdown on stage by telling pointless stories when she should be singing is both hilarious and gut-wrenching.

Altman never quite equaled Nashville. He came close with Short Cuts (1993), a film that was similar in tone and structure, but it didn’t quite achieve the same astonishing balance of character, story, and sense of time and place. Perhaps there will always be something a bit magical about Nashville because it was so unique at the time and it has had such a lasting influence on how movies are made. Over the past nearly four decades years it has more than stood the test of time, and it will continue to be the bar by which other films like it are measured.

Nashville Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • Audio commentary featuring director Robert Altman
  • Making-of documentary
  • Three archival interviews with Altman
  • Behind-the-scenes footage
  • Demo of Keith Carradine performing his songs from the film
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Molly Haskell
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 3, 2013

    The new transfer of Nashville on Criteron’s Blu-ray was made by Paramount Pictures from a 35mm interpositive and restored at Technicolor using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The result is a vast improvement over Paramount’s previously available DVD from 2000, which was okay for its time, but still bore too many signs of age and wear. The 2K high-definition transfer and restoration has brought the film back to its intended visual glory, although one should note that Altman intended the film to look somewhat “rough.” He didn’t want a stylized look, but rather a “captured in the moment” kind of aesthetic, which the new transfer maintains beautifully. The image is slightly soft, owing to the general look of 1970s cinematography, and grain is readily apparent. Colors look much better than the DVD, which had a slightly faded and greenish palette that is much better represented here (all those patriotic blues and reds really pop now and flesh tones look much more natural). The disc also boasts a lossless 5.1-channel soundtrack mastered from the 35mm magnetic tracks that improves dramatically over the DVD’s six-channel mix, which was largely confined to the front soundstage. The new mix takes advantage of all the aural space, placing dialogue and sound effects and music all around us in a completely natural way while keeping the multiple characters’ voices clear and distinct as intended.
    Criterion’s disc maintains the audio commentary director Robert Altman recorded for the 2000 DVD. He discusses everything about the film, from the music to the casting (after all, he has almost three hours to fill—little surprise that there are numerous silences, especially near the end). Overall, though, his commentary is highly informative and flows nicely. Virtually everything else on Criterion’s disc is new, starting with a 71-minute retrospective documentary that features new interviews with actors Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls, and Lily Tomlin; screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury; assistant director Alan Rudolph; and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman. There are also three archival interviews with Altman (one from 1975, one from 2000 that previously appeared on the DVD, and one from 2002); behind-the-scenes footage; a demo of Carradine performing his songs from the film, and an original theatrical trailer.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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