Nashville Soothes My Soul
Posted by therebelprince on August 14, 2009
This week, ramblings on Robert Altman‘s devastating and rhapsodic 1975 masterpiece Nashville.
First off, if you don’t know the film, buy it. And while you’re waiting for it to arrive, you can read a detailed recap here. In essence, 24 people – country music stars and wannabes, politicos and obsessives on the outside-looking-in – converge and criss-cross through each other’s lives over one weekend in the country music capital. Through their staggeringly diverse outlooks, Altman paints a picture of a confused America as it came out of Camelot and its black-and-white Cold War politics, and into the modern era.
(Incidentally, although I’m not sure which are attributed to him, a lot of the film’s artwork was done by illustrator J. William Myers, who more than deserves a shoutout here!)
The film may seem at first to repel non-country music fans, focussing as it does on so many Grand Ole Opry performances and bluegrass clubs, but this is by no means a “country” film. Much as The Sopranos used gangster tropes to detail the decline of the archetypal male and female in modern America, Nashville uses the archaic country and western culture to explore more universal human themes.
To start with, we must remember this was 1975. Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) is a walking reminder of the Kennedy era as she bemoans the loss of an all-too-brief Golden age. Now, America emerges from the Watergate scandal (Hal Phillip Walker is running for President in the upcoming 1976 election, which would’ve been the farewell to Nixon had he not been impeached), and is pulling away from a game-changing war in Vietnam (Gerald Ford‘s final retreat from Vietnam occured less than two months before the film’s premiere): Private Kelly (Scott Glenn) may be following Barbara Jean to honour his mother’s wishes, or he may be in need of her saccharine platitudes in the aftermath of his war ordeal. The American dream – or, specifically, the dream of America – has been torn asunder ever since the Kennedy assassinations, and rendered as phony as the Nashville Parthenon, originally built, Triplette (Michael Murphy) tells us, from plaster of paris for a temporary exposition and reconstructed after it the citizens fell in love with the fake monument. We never see the politician, Walker, because surely he can never be as “good” as his extreme campaign promises sound. He has an admirably libertarian view in abolishing the draft, but then takes his distrust to an extreme when he asks to abolish lawyers from government altogether. Much like the world of peace and love that folk rock trio Tom (Keith Carradine), Bill (Allan F. Nicholls) and Mary (Cristina Raines) would subscribe to, it’s a lovely dream that fails to be practically implemented. But Walker’s actions are entirely carried out by Triplette and other politicos, and his words shouted through the streets are a recording. Despite his best claims, he is ultimately one of the nameless Washington faces, and remains so through the film’s final moments.
Here, instead, the person who everyone comes to see – at the airport, at the hospital, and ultimately the big drawcard for Walker’s rally itself – is Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), the fragile country singer who is the heart of the city of Nashville and of the film itself. Barbara Jean, though, is a false heart. She is in no way the sweet teen idol we see on stage; instead she’s an emotionally insecure, paranoid little girl, fearful of those around her – like her rival Connie White (the resounding Karen Black) and protected only by her gruff husband and manager Barnett (Allen Garfield).
Blakley is the star of the film (if such a person can exist in an Altman work). Barbara Jean is already a wreck when we meet her, hiding her mental weakness behind a physical injury, but by the time of her crushing breakdown on stage, we understand the delicate pull between celebrity and sanity that has ruled over her for Lord-knows-how-many years. The cult of celebrity, and the deconstruction of the American dream, are the key ideas which pervade Nashville, andI’ll discuss more below, as we take a look at some of the film’s greatest scenes and characters.
1. Geraldine Chaplin‘s Opal, the excitable BBC reporter, is a perfect, brutally frank fish-out-of-water in the troubled-but-still-tongued Tennessee. When she climbs aboard the tour bus of Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown), Opal wisely tells all the African-Americans onboard that she “knows of the problems in the South”. Aside from the hilariously objective anthropological angle she takes dealing with these people (earlier she compares a gospel choir’s movements to “deepest, darkest Africa), Opal has no idea of what should be said and what shouldn’t. When Wade Cooley (Robert DoQui) later drunkenly abuses Brown for being the “whitest nigger in America”, he is forcibly ejected from the club in which Brown is performing. In one of the film’s many oddly beautiful moments, Opal wanders with her trusty recorder amidst a pile of wrecked cars. To her, “the rust on their bodies is the color of dried blood… these cars are trying to communicate!”. Later, she attempts to strain the same metaphor from the empty yellow school buses in a depot. Opal spends all her time hunting for hidden metaphors – she’s aghast ever since missing out on capturing a pile-up and subsequent traffic jam due to the absence of her camera man – that she fails to ever see the truth of the Nashville around her. Chaplin is utterly gorgeous as Opal, squealing whenever she spots a celebrity and effortlessly inserting herself into any social situation.
2. Four Sundays. It’s Nashville, so most of our characters attend a church service on Sunday morning. Altman’s mosaic films are the clear inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson and his 90s ilk. What Altman got that the others never did is how to treat the characters’ links with the requisite subtley. Aside from the opening traffic jam, in which all of the characters except Barbara Jean and Barnett are caught, the church service is the only explicit moment of a comparative montage. The rest of the emotional and thematic connections between characters are left to our viewing – and re-viewing – of the film. Many of our characters attend the society church, where Lady Pearl watches over all with a quiet dignity, while the middle class sit in a stuffy service with a mellow choir. Then there’s Linnea (Lily Tomlin) “slumming” in the gospel choir of a reverent all-black Baptist church . Lastly, there’s Barbara Jean sitting in her wheelchair in front of a quiet hospital congregation, where only the lonely – Private Kelly and Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) among them – are assembled. Mr. Green’s home – devoid of his wife Esther, who is in hospital – is the only non-musical sphere in the entire film. At the hospital, Barbara Jean sings, and in her suburban home Linnea teaches her deaf children music. But in Mr. Green’s parlour, even Martha (Shelley Duvall) listens on her headphones.
3. Loneliness pervades the film: not just for those like Mr. Green, but for those in the spotlight. Bill begins to suspect his wife is having an affair, but he has no idea that it is with their own arrogant bandmate, Tom. Keith Carradine is tall, lean and handsome, and the perfect choice to portray the heartbreaking rock star. As he sings the Academy Award winning “I’m Easy” (written by the actor himself, as many of the actors did for their characters), Tom is telling his own story – he provides the promise of a tortured soul just waiting for the right woman, but when he finds her he’s apparently “easy”. Each woman in the bar thinks the song is about them, and Altman’s camera directs us to believe – or to hope – that he’s singing to the repressed Linnea. But after their few hours in bed together, she has to return to her real life with her disconnected husband Del (Ned Beatty) and her two children. In her place, Tom is already phoning another partner before she’s even out the door. He’s bitter and empty, trying to make his own fame away from the trio but disgusted by the kinds of people who like his music – as when he berates autograph-seeking Martha (or “L.A. Joan” as she now calls herself) for her waiflike body. In a quietly powerful post-coital moment, Tom sleeps through Mary’s declaration of love – and that’s the way it has to be. She knows that she can never have him the way she has Bill. Tom refuses to “settle down” or to face everyday problems. Instead, he shuts down when Linnea mentions her kids, or when Opal tells him of a kibbutz in Israel. Despite this, he sings the film’s iconic song “It Don’t Worry Me”:
“The economy’s depressed, not me,
My spirit’s high as it can be,
And you may say that I ain’t free,
but it don’t worry me.”
(But we’ll come back to that number a little later)
4. The debut performance of Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) is the most personally crushing moment in Nashville. Sueleen is a waitress and has no talent for anything beyond this. Sueleen is cute, and flirts effortlessly with her customers. But her self-confidence hinges on her desire to become a country singer, at whatever cost. When she’s hired by Triplette and Del to sing at a Walker fundraiser, it turns out to be a striptease. If Ronee Blakley’s Barbara Jean is the false heart of Altman’s film, Sueleen is its true one. Even as the crowd jeer at her singing yet applaud her slow, humiliating reveal, Sueleen listens pathetically to the words of Triplette, who tells her that this will make her a star. She’s going to sing onstage at the Parthenon after Barbara Jean because of this, and then it won’t matter that these people don’t understand her talent. It’s a perfect denial borne of self-preservation, and Sueleen clings to it even as she is stripped naked and walks dejected away from the crowd of sponsors. Surprisingly, everyone but Barbara Jean – Sueleen, Connie White, Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) – all understand that music is a business. Yet Barbara Jean, with her almost Michael Jackson-like fantasy and denial, is the one the crowds line up for. Her easy world view, dished out from her flowing all-white gown, is what this crowd wants, and it’s what they get.
5. Barbara Jean’s onstage meltdown is the climax of the film in a technical sense, as it forces Barnett to commit her to the political fundraiser, and thus leads us in to the shattering finale. After performing two songs at her usual level, Barbara Jean stumps the band by beginning a rambling monologue about her childhood memories. Unwittingly, she continues teasing the crowd with the promise of a song only to break back into her reverie. It’s astonishing, and yet completely believable, how quickly the crowd turns against her. The minute she stops being the doll-like demi-god that they’ve made her out to be, Barbara Jean becomes a failure. She’s doomed for the same reason that Tom’s solo career is doomed: the masses already have their image of Barbara Jean, and anything that changes that is not what they need.
6. And so we come to the finale. As the crowds file into the beautiful lawns surrounding the Parthenon, the gang’s all here. Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum) – who has literally ridden his vehicle between scenes and maintained an omnipresence around the movie’s events – pulls up alongside the vans and limousines of Hal Phillip Walker and his entourage Fans and reporters are there, as is Mr. Green who is hunting for his insolent niece. Backstage, Barnett deplores Triplette for putting up political banners during Barbara Jean’s performance, while Linnea, Sueleen and the trio of Tom, Bill and Mary prepare for their big moments. Barbara Jean sings “My Idaho Home” to the grateful crowd, but the joy is cut short when shots ring out: Kenny (David Hayward), the loner from out of town, has finally made his motivations clear. As the crowd watches in bewilderment, a bloodied Barbara Jean is carried offstage by Haven, Tom, Bud (Dave Peel) and Del. She’s clearly dead or dying but Haven – full of celebrity desire and political ambition – wills someone else on the platform to sing, because “we’ll show ’em what we’re made of”. (Earlier, in the song’s most painfully patriotic number, he opines that “we must be doing something right to last 200 years”.) Sueleen is shaken, and Linnea is disoriented but Winifred (Barbara Harris) steps up. She’s spent the entire film running away from her husband (Bert Remsen) in the hopes of becoming a singer and now in the wake of this tragedy, she gets her chance.
Winifred’s choice of song – Tom’s “It Don’t Worry Me” – is hilarious and horrifying at the same time. Above her, a huge American flag flies over this fake Greek building in the heart of the South. (There is, after all, no ancient American culture – at least not a white one – but only what we make from others.) Winifred has fulfilled the American dream. Yesterday, she was eating scraps off restaurant tables and sleeping in broken-down vehicles. Now, she’s in front of thousands performing as she’s always wanted to. But in this America, desperately willing to forget the problems of their decade, “dream” is an apt word. For they’re all dreamers, and willing to believe anything they’re told, just as Sueleen refuses to heed Wade’s honesty, remaining sure she’ll be a star one day.
And what did Winifred win from all this? What does she gain in this cult of celebrity? As Triplette points out, people like Elliott Gould and Julie Christie (both of whom make cameos as themselves) barely exist in Nashville. Connie White laughs at the idea that Christie is a movie star – she doesn’t even brush her hair. Yet, in California, who is Connie White? Or Haven Hamilton? Or, God forbid, Barbara Jean? Celebrity is a consequence of one’s culture, and this culture extends only as far as the records will sell. Opal, too, considers herself to be rubbing shoulders with fame, but everytime she meets someone – even those she has met before – she’s forced to reintroduce herself as “Opal from the BBC”. (Never once does she use her last name: she’s just Opal). Incidentally, Winifred goes under the name “Alberqueque” much as Martha calls herself L.A. Joan. Is this change of identity an inherent part of the desire to become a celebrity?
There are those out there who are still working on smaller aspects of “the dream”, but we’re given every indication that one’s station in life remains one’s station. Bud went to Harvard and lost his southern accent in the process, but he’s still here in his hometown: he does his father’s business, and at each performance gets a cursory audience introduction from Haven (in the hopes that he’ll find his niche? A wife? Who knows?). Tommy Brown is accepted in this predominantly white society set because he’s a star; Wade Cooley, on the other hand, is considered riff-raff. And Norman (David Arkin), the celebrity chauffeur, completely fails to understand why his charges have no interest in his opinions, or his friendship. He’s just a functionary, a “servant” as Opal puts it. Norman, like Kenny and Wade, is one of the disenfranchised: he has no celebrity and therefore no status.
And so we realise that this “American dream” has become irrevocably fused with the dream of celebrity. As she walks into town with Kenny, Winifred comments that she wants to be “a singer, or a star”. Whichever one happens happens; she’s chasing a dream that she’s seen on television, and it’s led her here. In the end, it doesn’t matter: she gets to be both a singer and a star in this moment at the Parthenon, but she also gets a great big sword of Damocles hanging over her head. Despite the wave of fans who greet her at the airport, Barbara Jean is forgotten within five minutes of her death, with even the loyal Private Kelly walking away purposefully when there is nothing left to see. Winifred has risen up the only way one can rise up: when someone else falls, and a space vacates. Like Tom’s merry-go-round of lovers, things all come around again (“since you’ve gone, my heart is broken another time”, sings Mary as she stands between her husband and her lover). Sueleen “makes it” because of a connection and a striptease. Winifred does so because of dumb luck. Lady Pearl doubts that the Kennedys will ever come again, but I’m assured they will. Everything comes around again in time.
In his commentary on the film, Robert Altman has stated that – and since it’s his view I’ll accept it as gospel – “people are not assassinated because of their ideas or what they do. They’re assassinated to draw attention to the assassin”. Altman was seen as somewhat of a prophet when, five years after Nashville was released, John Lennon suffered a similar fate to Barbara Jean. Certainly, Kenny is unwanted in this society. He makes no waves, remains in the background, and is mocked by those who do see him (Mary: “He looks like Howdy Doody”). Undoubtedly the irresponsible gun politics and rampant machismo of the United States say a lot for their ghastly murder rate. But at the same time it is this cult of celebrity, in a world of fifteen-minute fames that could only be speculated about in 1975, the desire to be seen leads Kenny to his decision. There’s no running from the crime; no fiery speech of motivation. He stands there, with such aching passion in his reddened eyes, and watches her die. Opal – distracted as usual by finding meaning in the mundane – misses the entire event. Walker’s van flees too, and Del and Linnea are not far behind. But the crowd remains. They stand, young and old, having just witnessed a brutal assassination, and listen intently to this grubby woman perform a song of self-assured ignorance. It doesn’t worry them, because to think about it is to think about everything – or anything – and in this world, that’s too much.
To me, Nashville is important for so many reasons. It’s a beautiful art work featuring resounding performances, and remains endlessly fascinating. This wide world of characters, displayed above, each come to life effortlessly and powerfully. I often wonder – and this is just my opinion – if we as a people are less smart these days. Sure, we still have movies that make points, but they seem to end a lot more optimistically. “The Pursuit of Happyness” or “Slumdog Millionaire” purport to show us portrayals of broken lives, but seem just as often to conclude with extravagant Hollywood fantasy endings. And those that don’t end so simply, like “Crash“, are now treated as “issue” films. Half of us see them, and the other half pretend to have seen them. They’re duly awarded their Oscars, and we move on. The points are always simple enough – class distinction is bad, the struggle is worth it – that they never dare confront us directly with an opinion that isn’t politically correct. (Or, if they do, they get a limited release in seven cinemas to be discussed nervously at dinner parties). And even Paul Thomas Anderson, an Altman-esque director who I respect a great deal, fills his mosaics with overly clever montage sequences or overt symbolism (as in the odd finale to his brilliant There Will Be Blood). I’m not saying everything needs to be depressing and frank – though admittedly only Tricycle Man, and perhaps Tommy Brown, seems devoid of sorrow here – but where is our generation’s Nashville? Where is our Harold and Maude? Where are the comedies as scintillating and eternal as Paper Moon, Annie Hall or What’s Up, Doc? I continue to believe that the 1970s were the heyday of film, and now the great artists have moved to television, where they fill our lives with The Wire and Mad Men. For now, though, I’m just happy to have this perfect exploration of our disillusioned world, and thank Robert Altman and Joan Tewksbury for bringing this to us. May Nashville live long in our cultural memory, and remind us all of what film can do.
I’m not affiliated in any way with Amazon but here’s some great Nashville products.
- The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece
- The soundtrack to the film, which doesn’t contain all of the songs but is definitely worth it.
- And a great Canadian “Tribute to Nashville” which features all of the songs, including those not on the official soundtrack, performed by a group of musicians and fans.
Lastly, check out these photos at Suntimes of the Nashville cast reunion.
My other late night rants can be found here.