A Critics' Duet on 'Nashville'

From the 'Voice' archives: Remembering Robert Altman through the words of Voice critics past

 June 9, 1975
We decided for reasons that will become apparent, that the most appropriate way to review Nashville was through a dialogue between the boss critic and his first stringer. May we also suggest that since a lot of the pleasure ofNashville lies in discovering it for yourself and watching how it comes out, you avoid reading this or any other reviews of the movie until you've seen it.

Prologue: I (Molly) go to a morning screening which Andrew cannot attend. I come out dazzled, stimulated, exhilarated by the sheer talent on display, and relieved that the film is not, as I'd been led to expect, a put-down of redneck America (bein' Southern, I'm sensitive to such slights) or an exploitation of the country music scene to make easy political why-we're-in-Vietnam parallels. There's a little of both, a line too directly drawn from Dallas to Nashville (of which more later), but these elements are strongly modified, even redeemed by the music itself, the true star of the film. It is after all, a musical, a Chaucerian musical pilgrimage whose Canterbury is Nashville, I tell Andrew, and it helps to have a feeling for country music.

Andrew (dubious): Well, why don't you review it then?

Molly (delighted): Okay.

There is a subsequent evening screening which both of us attend. From the brilliant opening credits—in which magazine-cover pictures of each of the major performers is flashed on the screen while a caller, jamboree style, announces them—I can sense that the audience is not "with" the movie the way they were at the earlier screening. They don't laugh at the jokes or dig the music. I glance at El Exigente, normally a big laugher. Finally he laughs uproariously. It is at a song rendered by Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), "the King of Country Music" in Robert Altman's vision of Nashville. The song—"For the Sake of the Children"—is so artfully sincere in its hypocrisy that it serves as a primer for the Puritanism of the Bible Belt. . . . The film ends. We leave quickly and furtively, talking of other things. Outside.

Andrew (nodding, impressed): That was really something when Barbara Harris started scat-singing at the end as if she'd been a country singer all her life. Who would have thought she had it in her? And all through the picture she's just moping around, a rag doll that suddenly comes to life. What a finish!

Molly:But didn't you love the beginning, the electrifying and savage scene in the studio: Haven Hamilton is sitting on his throne, encased in glass, his emasculated Ivy League son and his mistress sitting in attendance, while he records one of those righteously jingoistic ballads (called "200 Year," lyrics by Gibson himself!) which is so absurdly irresistible. Then suddenly he interrupts the spell he himself has so carefully cast, to lash out crudely and brutally at the pianist, "Frog" (Richard Baskin, who arranged and supervised the music for the entire film). To me, this establishes the whole power structure and pecking order of the film, the steely grip of this slimy, fascinating little tyrant who presides over the folks here at home, and fans out yonder of country and western.

Andrew:I like the very beginning and I like the very end, but I find a lot in the middle very ordinary. People have been telling me for weeks that the movie is very "novelistic," and I think I know what they mean. It's all these characters lurking in the background of one shot and then suddenly lurching into the foreground of the next shot. But for me "novelistic" is not just network, but nuance too. Altman has given star billing to 24 performers, but he's cheating on at least half a dozen of them. Bert Remsen as Star, for example, is one of the Altman regulars, but all he does here is chase half-heartedly after Barbara Harris. Or Jeff Goldblum as the Tricycle Man. He's more a visual figure of style then a character. And when you think about the link-up to Easy Rider and the Kennedys and the fact Nashville turns out to be part musical and part murder mystery, then a great many figures in the background turn out to be suspects in some impending violence. But I'm not knocking the movie itself, just some of its advance critiques. I hate to go out on a limb after only one viewing, but Nashville strikes me as Altman's best film, and the most exciting dramatic musical since Blue Angel. And, like you said, it's the music that puts it over.

Molly: I think that the power and the theme of the film lie in the fact that while some characters are more "major" than others, they are all subordinated to the music itself. It's like a river, running through the film, running through their life. They contribute to it, are united for a time, lose out, die out, but the music, as the last scene suggests, continues. It diminishes them, as death itself diminishes us, and ennobles them. And it's the people who live and breathe country music who are finally less ridiculous, less hollow, than the "sophisticates" who condescend to them: Michael Murphy's advance man and Geraldine Chaplin as the bleeding heart BBC reporter.

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