Director Robert Altman had already established himself with provocative hits (like the 1970 "M*A*S*H") when he came up with something new in 1975 with "Nashville" [Criterion]: A sociological epic drama featuring an ensemble cast of two dozen overlapping characters in mixed storylines that merge together, usually in well over two hours. "Nashville" is a country and western-infused tapestry of music, show biz, ego, hedonism, provincialism, political extremism, mental illness and assassination — all of which was very much on America's mind during the winding-down days of the Vietnam War.
Viewed from today, "Nashville" is certainly a nostalgic reminder of its period, with an emphasis on unseemliness. Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury were making a political statement back then, but watching the film 40 years later is like peering into a time capsule — an eerie time capsule, for some of us who lived in a decidedly different America.
"Nashville" is built around a fundraiser for a populist third-party candidate for the 1976 presidential election, which occurred a year after the film's release. (Jimmy Carter won.) The candidate is omnipresent — in the form of posters, placards and a campaign truck with blaring speakers — but unseen. Political operative Michael Murphy canvasses the town for headliners to appear in a major rally at Nashville's Parthenon, aided by Ned Beatty, husband of white gospel singing star Lily Tomlin. Prime catches are Opryland stars: Patriotic patriarch Henry Gibson; singing star Ronee Blakley, in between nervous breakdowns; singing star Karen Black, who hopes to supplant Blakley; Keith Carradine, a member of a Peter, Paul & Mary-like trio who, over the film's four-day span, sleeps with half the women; and Tomlin.
Also mixed up in the proceedings are talentless waitress Gwen Welles, who is forced to perform a striptease at a political function; Barbara Harris, an unfocused stranger who wanders into town looking for singing stardom, and, in the midst of the aforementioned assassination, finds it; Barbara Baxley, who waxes poetic on the Kennedy boys; and Geraldine Chaplin, an Englishwoman who stalks the streets with a cassette recorder purportedly making a documentary with the BBC. Non-music characters mixed up in it all include a young Scott Glenn, as a private on leave from the war; a young Jeff Goldblum, who enigmatically rides around town on an oversized tricycle in psychedelic garb; an old Keenan Wynn, who frets and fumes; and Shelley Duvall, a music groupie who is the cause of Wynn's fretting and fuming. And plenty more.
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