Nashville is a 1975 American satirical musical comedy-drama film directed by Robert Altman. The film takes a snapshot of people involved in the country music and gospel music businesses in Nashville, Tennessee. The characters' efforts to succeed or hold on to their success are interwoven with the efforts of a political operative and a local businessman to stage a concert rally before the state's presidential primary for a populist outsider running for President of the United States on the Replacement Party ticket.
Nashville is often noted for its scope, with several critics viewing it as a sort of mosaic. The work contains 24 main characters, an hour of musical numbers, and multiple storylines. Its large ensemble cast includes David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert DoQui, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel, Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen, Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, and Keenan Wynn.
Nashville opened to strongly positive reviews and won numerous awards. It is considered Altman's masterpiece, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1992.
The overarching plot takes place over five days leading up to a political rally for Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker, who is never seen throughout the entire movie. The story follows 24 characters roaming around Nashville, in search of some sort of goal through their own (often overlapping) story arcs.
The film opens with a campaign van for presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker driving around Nashville as an external loudspeaker blares Walker's folksy political aphorisms, juxtaposed with country superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) recording an overblown patriotic song intended to commemorate the upcoming Bicentennial, and growing irritated with the accompanying musicians in the studio. An Englishwoman named Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) who claims to be working on a documentary for the BBC appears in the studio but is told to leave by Haven. Down the hall from Haven's session is Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), a white gospel singer recording a song with a black choir.
Later that day, popular country singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is returning to Nashville, having recovered from a burn accident, and the elite of Nashville's music scene, including Haven and his companion Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), have converged on Berry Field to greet her plane as it arrives. Also present are Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) and the popular folk trio "Bill, Mary, and Tom" who are in town to record an album. Bill (Allan F. Nicholls) and Mary (Cristina Raines) are married, but largely unhappy, partly due to the fact that Mary is in love with womanizing Tom (Keith Carradine). Meanwhile, Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) arrives at the airport to pick up his niece, Martha (Shelley Duvall), aka "L.A. Joan," a teenage groupie who has come to Nashville ostensibly to visit her aunt Esther Green who is sick in the hospital. However, Martha repeatedly puts off visiting her aunt in favor of chasing after male musicians. Working at the airport restaurant are African-American cook Wade Cooley (Robert DoQui), and his pretty waitress friend, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), an aspiring country singer who refuses to recognize that she can't carry a tune.
After greeting the crowds on the tarmac, Barbara Jean faints due to the heat, and her handlers, headed by her domineering husband-manager Barnett (Allen Garfield), rush her to the hospital. Barbara Jean's appearance having been cut short, those in attendance depart the airport and wind up stranded on the highway after a pile-up occurs. During the commotion, Winifred (Barbara Harris), an aspiring country singer, runs away from her husband, Star (Bert Remsen), after he refuses to take her to the Grand Ole Opry. Star gives a ride to Kenny Frasier (David Hayward), who has just arrived in town carrying a violin case. Opal takes advantage of the traffic jam to interview first Linnea and then Tommy Brown (Timmy Brown), an African-American country singer who is performing at the Opry. Tommy and his entourage go to Lady Pearl's club but Wade, who is drinking and trying to pick up white girls at the bar, insults Tommy for being too "white" and starts a fight.
Linnea's husband, Del Reese (Ned Beatty) is working with political organizer, John Triplette (Michael Murphy) to plan a small fundraiser and a large outdoor concert gala for the Walker campaign. Sueleen appears at a local club's open mike night in a provocative outfit, and despite her lack of singing ability, club manager Trout (Merle Kilgore) recommends her to Triplette for the fundraiser based on her appearance. Winifred shows up at Trout's club trying to recruit musicians to record a demo with her, but Star sees her and chases her out. Del invites Triplette for family dinner with Linnea and their two deaf children. Linnea and Del are having communication problems and she focuses on the children rather than on him. In the middle of dinner, Tom calls trying to make a date with Linnea, but she puts him off, so he takes Opal back to his room instead. Pfc. Kelly sneaks into Barbara Jean's hospital room and sits in the chair by her bed all night, watching her sleep.
Tom calls Linnea again but, with Del listening on the other line, Linnea yells at Tom and tells him not to call her any more. Kenny rents a room from Mr. Green. Haven throws a pre-show party at his house before the evening's Grand Ole Opry performance. At the party, Triplette tries to persuade Haven to perform at the Walker gala by telling him that if Walker is elected, Walker would back Haven for state governor. Haven says he'll give Triplette his decision after the Opry show that night.
Later, Tommy Brown, Haven, and Connie White (Karen Black) all perform at the Opry. Connie is substituting for the hospitalized Barbara Jean. Winifred tries unsuccessfully to get backstage. At the hospital, Barbara Jean and Barnett have an argument because he is going to the after-show gathering to thank Connie for substituting at the last minute. Barbara Jean doesn't want him to go and he accuses her of having another nervous breakdown like she did previously. Barnett finally subdues Barbara Jean and leaves, but Connie doesn't seem happy to see him. Haven tells Triplette that Barbara Jean and Connie never appear on the same stage, and that he (Haven) will appear anyplace Barbara Jean also appears. Bill gets upset when his wife Mary doesn't show up all evening; she is sleeping with Tom.
It is Sunday morning and the characters are shown attending various local church services. A Roman Catholic service includes Lady Pearl, Wade and Sueleen in attendance; Haven sings in the choir at a Protestant service; and Linnea is seen in the choir at a black Protestant church as a baptism is taking place, with Tommy Brown attending. At the hospital chapel, Barbara Jean sings "In the Garden" from her wheelchair while Mr. Green and Pfc. Kelly, among others, watch. Mr. Green tells Kelly how he and his wife lost their son in WWII. Opal wanders alone through a huge auto scrapyard making free-form poetic speeches about the cars into her tape recorder. Haven, Tommy Brown and their families attend the stock car races, where Winifred also attempts to sing on a small stage but cannot be heard. Bill and Mary argue in their hotel room and are interrupted by Triplette, who wants to recruit them for the Walker concert gala. Tom tries to get chauffeur Norman (David Arkin) to score him some pills.
Opal walks alone through a large school bus parking lot making more strange observations into her tape recorder. Barbara Jean is discharged from the hospital at the same time Mr. Green shows up to visit his sick wife. Barbara Jean asks after his wife and sends her regards. After Barbara Jean and her entourage have left, a nurse tells Mr. Green his wife died earlier that morning. Back at Mr. Green's house, Kenny gets upset when Martha tries to look at his violin case.
Barbara Jean performs at Opryland USA. Triplette and Del attend and try to convince Barnett to have Barbara Jean play the Walker concert gala at the Parthenon the next day, but he refuses. Barbara Jean gets through the first couple of songs all right, but then begins to tell rambling stories about her childhood instead of starting the next song. After several false starts, Barnett escorts her from the stage and tells the disappointed audience that they can come to the Parthenon tomorrow and see Barbara Jean perform for free, thus committing her to the Walker concert.
Tom calls Linnea and invites her to meet him that night at a club where he is playing. Linnea arrives but sits by herself because Martha is trying to pick Tom up. Mary and Bill are also there, and Opal sits with them and talks about how she slept with Tom, causing Mary to become upset. Wade tries unsuccessfully to pick up Linnea, while Norman tries equally unsuccessfully to pick up Opal. Tom sings "I'm Easy" and Linnea, moved, goes back to his room where they make love. When Linnea needs to leave, Tom calls another woman and has a romantic conversation within Linnea's earshot while she is getting dressed.
Sueleen appears at the all-male Walker fundraiser, but is booed off the stage when she sings poorly and doesn't take off her clothes. Del and Triplette explain that the men expect her to strip and that if she does so, they will let her sing the next day at the Parthenon with Barbara Jean. Sueleen is visibly upset but strips anyway. Winifred shows up at the fundraiser hoping to get a chance to sing, but after she sees what is going on, she stays hidden behind a curtain. Del drives Sueleen home and drunkenly comes on to her, but she is rescued by Wade. After he hears what happened, Wade tells Sueleen she can't sing and asks her to go back to Detroit with him the next day. Sueleen refuses because she is determined to sing at the Parthenon with Barbara Jean.
The performers, audience and Walker and his entourage arrive for the Parthenon concert. In the performing lineup are Haven, Barbara Jean, Linnea and her choir, Bill, Mary and Tom, Sueleen, and Winifred who has shown up again hoping for a chance to sing. Barnett gets upset because Barbara Jean will have to perform in front of a large Walker advertisement, but has to go along with it because his wife's career will be harmed if he pulls her out of the show. Mr. Green and Kenny attend Esther Green's burial service and Mr. Green leaves angrily, vowing to find Martha (who is not at the service) and make her show some respect to her aunt. Mr. Green and Kenny go to the Parthenon to look for Martha.
The Walker gala starts and Haven and Barbara Jean perform a song together, then Barbara Jean sings a solo song. At the end of the song, Kenny takes a gun from his violin case and shoots Haven and Barbara Jean. Pfc. Kelly disarms Kenny as chaos breaks out. Barbara Jean is carried bleeding and unconscious from the stage. Haven tries to calm the crowd by exhorting them to sing, asserting that "This isn't Dallas". As he is led from the stage for treatment of his wounds, he hands the microphone off to Winifred, who begins to sing "It Don't Worry Me" and is joined by Linnea's gospel choir. The film ends with the audience raptly listening to Winifred's song — she has finally got her big break.
There are cameo appearances by Elliott Gould, Julie Christie, Vassar Clements and Howard K. Smith, all playing themselves. Gould and Christie were passing through Nashville when Altman added them. Altman himself plays Bob, an unseen producer who in the beginning of the film is producing Haven Hamilton's song "200 Years." He can be heard on a speaker when Hamilton gets agitated by Frog's inept piano playing.
The film was shot on location in Nashville in the summer (late July, August, and early September) of 1974. All the musical scenes are 'live' concert footage. The scene in which the song "I'm Easy" features was shot at Exit/In. The hospital scenes centered on Barbara Jean were filmed in a local hospital that had been closed; one floor of it was refurbished for use in filming. Robert Altman's log cabin-style house on the outskirts of Nashville was used as the home of Haven and Lady Pearl.
The original script was written by Joan Tewkesbury, who had collaborated with Altman on several of his films, including McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us. Altman had been approached to work on a film set in Nashville which he wasn't interested in. However, he became interested in the setting and sent Tewkesbury to Nashville to observe the area and its citizenry. Tewkesbury's diary of her trip provided the basis for the film's script, with many observations making it into the finished film, such as the highway pileup. However, as with most Altman projects, much of the dialogue was improvised with the script acting as a "blueprint" dictating the actions of the characters and the plot. Other Altman trademarks prevalent in the film are the large ensemble cast and the overlapping dialogue with several characters speaking at once.
Nashville's opening title sequence was designed by the film title designer Dan Perri, who had recently enjoyed his big break with his work on The Exorcist (1973). Under Altman's direction, Perri produced based the film's unusual, kitschy title sequence on low-budget K-Tel Records television commercials, and bought in Johnny Grant to provide the loud, brash voiceover. Perri later went on to design titles for a number of other major Hollywood pictures, including Taxi Driver (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Raging Bull (1980).
Several characters in Nashville are based on real country music figures: Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton is a composite of Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, and Porter Wagoner; Ronee Blakley's Barbara Jean is based on Loretta Lynn; the black country singer Tommy Brown (played by Timothy Brown) is based on Charley Pride; and the feuding folk trio is based on Peter, Paul and Mary; within the trio, the married couple of Bill and Mary were inspired by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, who later became Starland Vocal Band. Keith Carradine's character is believed to be inspired by Kris Kristofferson and Karen Black's Connie White strongly resembles Lynn Anderson.
The role of Barbara Jean had not been filled when filming was about to commence. Ronee Blakley was in Nashville at the time and took on the role at the last minute, having already written several songs for the film.
The speeches given by candidate Hal Phillip Walker, who is never seen, were written by actor-screenwriter Thomas Hal Phillips. Walker, the climactic assassination, the political theme and various associated characters (such as Haven Hamilton) do not appear in the earliest versions of the script.
Altman later claimed that Barbara Harris was disappointed with her performance as Winifred and that she offered to pay him for the expense of reshooting her scenes; he declined, having been satisfied with the footage and lacking the time to reshoot anyway.
Nearly all of the extras in the film were Nashville locals. Many of them were not actively participating in the film but simply happened to be at the location where the cast and crew were filming at the time.
Altman had enough footage to produce a four-hour film, and assistant director Alan Rudolph suggested he create an expanded version of Nashville to be shown in two parts, "Nashville Red" and "Nashville Blue", but the film ultimately remained intact. After a rush of critical acclaim, ABC expressed interest in a proposal for a ten-hour miniseries of Nashville, based on the footage not used in the final cut, but plans for the project were scrapped. The additional footage has not been made available on DVD releases.
However, in a 2000 interview with The A.V. Club, Altman disputed the claim that he had several hours worth of deleted scenes to cut another feature-length film (or two) out of. Altman claimed that there "were no deleted scenes" and that "almost everything we shot is in that film". Altman further stated the unseen, extra footage that wasn't used in the final cut of the film was mainly music and not much else.
Nashville was lauded by major film critics. Pauline Kael described it as "the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen". Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Leonard Maltin gave the film four-star reviews and called it the best film of 1975. In his original review, Ebert wrote, "after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser. It's that good a movie." On August 6, 2000, he included it in his The Great Movies compilation.
According to film critic Ruth McCormick, however, after an initial wave of praise, a critical backlash ensued. "Robert Mazzocco in The New York Review of Books, Greil Marcus in The Village Voice and John Malone in The New York Times wrote articles that ranged from debunking the hype and calling Nashville superficial and overrated, to absolutely hating the film for its aesthetic shortcomings or its purported pessimism, cynicism and sexism."
In 1992, Nashville was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2007, the movie was ranked No. 59 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - 10th Anniversary Edition list; it did not appear on the original 1998 list. The song "I'm Easy" was named the 81st Best Song of All Time by the American Film Institute (AFI).
In a 1995 academic article published in American Quarterly, Paul Lauter, a Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, compared the film to "a poststructuralist theoretical text", adding that "it invites, indeed valorizes, contradiction and seems designed to resist closure." As a result, he explained, "interpretations of the film have been wildly divergent and evaluations contradictory."
The film was a box office success, with theatrical rentals of $6.8 million in North America by 1976.
The movie was widely despised by the mainstream country-music community at the time of its release; many artists believed it ridiculed their talent and sincerity. Altman felt they were mad because he chose not to use their music in favor of letting the actors compose their own material.
The film won an Oscar for Best Original Song and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song - Motion Picture (awarded to Keith Carradine for "I'm Easy"). Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Robert Altman was nominated for Best Director, and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture. It won a BAFTA Film Award for Best Sound Track. Altman won for best director from: Cartagena Film Festival; Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards; National Board of Review; National Society of Film Critics Awards; and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Lily Tomlin was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Nashville's eleven Golden Globe nominations remain the most ever received by one film. It also received four nominations in a single acting category, this was and remains unprecedented for major film award shows.
American Film Institute recognition
|The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Nashville|
|Soundtrack album by various artists|
MCA Nashville (reissue)
The actors and actresses composed some of the songs they performed in the film. Ronee Blakley contributed several songs, including those performed by Timothy Brown. Karen Black wrote the songs she performed in character as Connie White. Keith Carradine wrote "I'm Easy," which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song - Motion Picture. Carradine also wrote "It Don't Worry Me", which is heard on the soundtrack throughout the film, and is the closing number performed by Barbara Harris onstage at the Parthenon.
Film score composer Richard Baskin composed songs for Henry Gibson to sing in character as Haven Hamilton.
While the music was viewed in the Nashville music industry as mean-spirited satire, the songs have achieved a cult-status among alternative country musicians. In 2002, the album, A Tribute to Robert Altman's Nashville was released, featuring interpretations of the film's songs by Canadian alt-country figures, including Carolyn Mark, Kelly Hogan and Neko Case.
Spanky and Our Gang covered "Dues" and "Since You've Gone" in their 1975 album Change.
Songs on the film's soundtrack, but not on the soundtrack album:
Plans were discussed for a sequel set twelve years later and titled Nashville 12, and most of the original players agreed to appear. In the script for the sequel, Lily Tomlin's character, Linnea, is running for political office; and Barnett now managing Connie White and obsessed with a Barbara Jean impersonator.
The shooting of Barbara Jean in the climactic scene predated, but eerily mirrored, what would be the murder of John Lennon in 1980. In an interview on the DVD, Altman remarks that after Lennon's death, reporters questioned the director about Nashville and its harbinger of the assassination of a music star.
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