'Nashville': THR's 1975 Review
On June 11, 1975, director Robert Altman introduced American audiences to the world of country and gospel music in a series of overlapping plots with 24 main characters and over an hour of musical numbers. The film marked the big-screen debut of actress Lily Tomlin (a role which earned her her only Oscar nomination) and one of the first appearances by young star Jeff Goldblum. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
From the first moment that Nashville appears on the screen, with titles that repeat themselves like faint and distant echoes, it is evident that Robert Altman has something more in mind than an illustrated LP of Country and Western music. Just what that something might be is broadly hinted at in the recording session played under the film's protracted credits sequence. Haven Hamilton, a C&W star, is performing a pseudo-patriotic ballad for the microphones - "We must be doin' something right/ To last 200 years"- meanwhile giving his harried staff unshirted hell for every minor deviation from his rhythms or his rules.
For what Altman has set out to explore in the vast and original masterwork is nothing less than the appearances vs. the realities of the American scene; and he has chosen as his focus, even his metaphor, that most typical of American institutions, the political rally - in this instance, a rally to be staged in Nashville, Tenn., the home of that other great American institution, the Grand Ole Opry.
To Nashville comes Hal Phillip Walker, third party presidential hopeful. Although never seen (except as an entourage of black limousines), he is abundantly heard as his red-white-and-blue campaign truck tours the streets of the city, its loudspeakers blasting out a mix of bland slogans and blander promises of something for everybody. To Nashville, too, come the hopefuls and the drifters, drawn to a mecca where dreams may translate into the realities of discovery and a career, and where, at the very least, drifting has been institutionalized as the "groupie" syndrome.
Somehow, in Nashville's 159 minutes, Altman manages to focus on an extraordinary number of types, extraordinary in their quantity as well as their variety. There are no less than 24 major roles in the film, and literally dozens of minor ones (among them, Julie Christie and Elliott Gould, playing themselves, as visiting celebrities unwillingly drawn into the five days of pre-rally festivities). No less astonishing is the director's ability to make each one of them not only distinguishable, but memorable. By the end of the picture, most of their paths have crossed, most of their lives have been altered. More than in any previous Altman movie, we are made to feel the pathos and vulnerability of those impoverished souls he draws so well.
If Nashville has any single center, it would be Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) a C&W star whose hard-pushing manager-husband (Allen Garfield) has brought her to success and a myriad of fans, but also to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion. She is engineered into an appearance at the rally by Walker's chief strategist (Michael Murphy), who wants at least her implied endorsement of his boss, and by her husband, who hopes to use this occasion to reassure her fans that Barbara Jean is well and ready to resume her career.
If Barbara Jean has made it, Sueleen Gay, a waitress at the Nashville airport's coffee counter, hopes that by stuffing some kleenex in her bra and strutting suggestively to some sexy songs of her own devising she make it too. But when Sueleen's big moment comes, her voice is unbelievably dreadful - and she is shocked to discover that what the customers are really paying for is a striptease to the buff. The girl, humiliated, complies after being promised that she can sing again at the rally, on the same stage as Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton. Gwen Welles, briefly seen last year in Altman's California Split, is so achingly right in the role that she becomes every talentless girl who thinks she can achieve the American dream with nothing more than a winning smile and a sexy body.
Then there is Barbara Harris as a bird-brained blonde, running away from her dirt-farm husband for a crack at the big time. There is Lily Tomlin, lead singer with a black Gospel choir, whose two children have been born deaf and who permits herself a brief, unsatisfying fling with a guitar-strumming Lothario (Keith Carradine). And there is Keenan Wynn, frantic because his wife is dying amidst the city's festivities and he is unable to divert to her bedside, not even for a moment, the attentions of his "groupie" niece from Los Angeles (Shelley Duvall).
On the other side stand the achievers, the "good Americans" - Henry Gibson, flawless in his interpretation of the pint-sized, ambitious Haven; Ned Beatty, the sweaty embodiment of every small-town lawyer who scents his big chance to get ahead; Barbara Baxley, who runs her own successful night club, dabbles in politics, and grows teary at the though of the Kennedy assassination; and Karen Black as a Grand Ole Opry favorite, revealing at once the skin-thin bonhommie and the downright bitchiness that got her there. Far more sinister than these because he operates from no moral base whatsoever is Michael Murphy's unflappable, unscrupulous campaign manager - a WASP for all seasons. If this is what the American dream is all about, Nashville seems to be saying, it's time that America woke up.
Never before has an American movie had quite this texture, this density both of visuals and of sound track. It is like a great tapestry, each strand clear and clean, but not until they have been skillfully interwoven do the main shapes emerge. Obviously, despite his well known propensity to throw away the script and improvise on the spot, Altman owes a great deal to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury. At the very least, she provided the colorful gallery of characters and over-all concept out of which Altman has wrought this powerful, innovative film. Credit must also go to the agile camerawork of Pat Lohmann, the complex editing pattern of Sidney Levin and Dennis Hill, and to Richard Baskin's musical supervision of its 27 songs.
In fact, it would be difficult to fault any aspect of this production except the unmotivated shooting that provides the climax at the Nashville Parthenon. But then, do we know what motivated the Kennedy assassinations, or even the attempted murder of George Wallace? Perhaps this, too, is part of the American metaphor that Altman reveals to us in Nashville. Certainly, for the American cinema, it is the most epochal event since Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. — Arthur Knight