50 Movies for 50 States: Week 44 – Tennessee, Film – Nashville

Week 44 – Tennessee

Nashville (1975), an ABC Entertainment, American Broadcasting Company and Paramount Pictures production, directed by Robert Altman, written by Joan Tewkesbury, cinematography by Paul Lohmann, with David Arkin, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakely, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall and Lily Tomlin

Here we are: T for Tennessee and Robert Altman’s masterpiece: Nashville. This is our second time visiting Altman as previously I talked about his 1999 portrait of a small town in Mississippi, Cookie’s Fortune – and while one would think previous dealings with Altman’s material would be of some benefit … it’s not.

So I’m not going to lie to you. I am overwhelmed.

I am overwhelmed, having just read a June 27, 2000 retrospective of Nashville by Ray Sawhill of Salon.com. It’s an excellent, if not exhaustive, piece that I highly recommend to any person interested in the Altman or Nashville or film making in general.

I am overwhelmed knowing that, in addition to Sawhill’s article, there have been countless essays – even books – devoted solely to this one film. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said before?

Most importantly, I am overwhelmed by the movie for being just that – overwhelming. I recall turning to my wife Anna when the credits came up.

“What did it all mean?” I asked, my mind – I confess – a bit foggy from a dose of Vicodin I had taken earlier in the evening to ease the throbbing pain of having four wisdom teeth removed that morning.

She shrugged.

“Something about fame?” Anna offered up.

That’s true. Nashville is a movie about fame and power in a town that exists in a vacuum. And not just any empty void, but a far-reaching vacuum that sucks up songwriters and musicians and producers from all areas of the country, promising to turn them into something larger than life. It’s Los Angeles and New York dressed in a rhinestone jumper, smiling at you through clenched teeth. It’s the glitz and glamor of show business topped with a heaping helping of good ol’ down home Southern hospitality. Even a coal miner’s daughter can become a superstar in Nashville. It’s the very essence of America. You don’t need a fancy resume like in Los Angeles or a fancy pedigree like in New York City. All it takes is a really great rags-to-riches story and – oh yeah – the ability to sing … or maybe play an instrument. That last part is especially important. Because if you don’t have the musical skills, you might find yourself taking your clothes off for a roomful of creepy old men, as one of Nashville‘s many characters discovers in the film. But … hey … it’s all about finding your niche, right?

What else is Nashville trying to say? Something about the enduring value of music?

No, that can’t possibly be it.

Well, what then?

I would recommend we look to the plot for answers, if only it were that easy. Nashville has no “conventional” plot. Instead, it literally has dozens of storylines and characters – characters like:

* Linnea and Delbert Reese, played by Lily Tomlin and Ned Beatty, the parents of two deaf children. Their marriage is at a crossroads. Linnea (Tomlin) is involved in an on-again, off-again affair with a playboy folk singer played by Keith Carradine. Carradine’s character is…

* Tom Frank, part of a Peter, Paul and Mary-like trio. Frank, in addition to his affair with Linnea is also sleeping with his bandmate Mary, who is the girlfriend of his other bandmate, Bill.

* Barbara Jean, the reigning queen of Nashville, played by professional songstress Ronee Blakley. Barbara Jean, who many critics believe to be patterned after the legendary country singer Loretta Lynn, in town for a concert, passes out during a public appearance. She is replaced by her rival, up-and-coming country singer Connie White, played by Karen Black. The character of White is believed to be based on the singer Lynn Anderson (“(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden”).

* Opal, played by Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie Chaplin!), a spacey celebrity-obsessed BBC news reporter.

There are others. Many others. My favorite character is played by Jeff Goldblum, who is listed in the film’s credits as the “Tricycle Man” because of a ridiculous-looking 3-wheeled motorcycle he’s seen riding around throughout the movie. Goldblum’s character shows up consistently throughout the movie, performing magic tricks for anyone who will pay attention, but serves a more important purpose. Shots of the Tricycle Man riding from one place to another tie together the film’s scenes. Each of the scenes are set pieces. Rarely does the camera focus on one character for too long, preferring to jump in and out of conversations.

When a conversation ends, there are the musical numbers – the many musical numbers. If you are a fan of country music, you will love Nashville. If you’re not a fan, it might get a little tedious. Thankfully, there is an overriding story arc which ties everything together – I still hesitate to call it the movie’s “plot.”

Driving the movie forward is the story of an aspiring presidential nominee running under a “Replacement Party” banner and efforts by his handlers to put together a rally involving as many of Nashville’s musicians as possible. Throughout the movie we hear many of Hal Phillip Walker’s speeches – the kind of rhetoric from an outsider candidate that many have seen as a precursor to Ross Perot’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns. Walker talks of getting rid of the old establishment and putting the power back in the hands of the citizen. Tearing down the bureaucracy preventing progress. Change.

It’s this really that serves as the film’s climax and gives it a sense of direction. If you’re like me and desire to know “what it all means,” this might be a clue.

The year was 1975 when Nashville hit the theaters. The country had been through Nixon. It had been through Watergate. Politically, something had to change. Yet, here the country was, as celebrity-obsessed as ever – an “idiocracy,” so to speak. True, a few years after Nashville was released we elected an outsider as president – a peanut farmer from the Deep South, no less. But four years later, we replaced him with a movie star. A really mediocre movie star.

Today, of course, there is no longer a distinction between a politician and a celebrity. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has her own reality television show and her daughter stars in another. The star of yet another reality television show is looking more and more like the Republican’s top pick to run against current president Barack Obama in 2012.

Many critics believe Nashville to be as much a political satire as a satire of the country music industry. In broader terms, it’s a satire about us as a nation and our obsession with fame – becoming famous or, like the character of Opal, being close to fame. (Roger Ebert made the observation that perhaps Opal is not really a BBC reporter but just a crazed fan, an argument that can easily be made.)

Altman takes the concept of our obsession with celebrity and takes it to its logical end. If you’ve seen Nashville and know how it ends – and I’m not going to ruin the ending – you know what I mean.

Upon Nashville‘s release, it was met with criticism from the music industry in Nashville who felt it was mean-spirited. Perhaps it hit a little too close to home.

Critics embraced the film and it was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won, which is forgivable, as is Robert Altman losing out Best Director to Milos Forman. Less forgivable is Lee Grant besting both Lily Tomlin and and Ronee Blakely being nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Grant was blacklisted by Hollywood film studio bosses in the 1950s, so it’s likely the Oscar nod was an apology and – in keeping with the theme of today’s review — that’s politics for you.

Nashville is a classic 1970s film with a message that still resonates today. Country music fans will get an added level of enjoyment, but there’s plenty to like here even if you’re like me and cringe at the sight of a yodeling man in a pair of jeans and a cowboy hat.

Next week: I mess with Texas.


You might also like: