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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 15.69%
Average: 3.92%
Pretty Bad: 3.92%
Total Crap: 3.92%

4 reviews, 27 user ratings

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by Andrew Howe

"Livin' in a big country."
4 stars

Practically every twentieth-century movement in popular music has its origins in the United States, but the genre that sounds least at home outside its shores is traditional country. You canít sing about sharecropping, women named Lorelei and other aspects of American rural life with a British accent (unless youíre Elvis Costello, and Almost Blue was probably his idea of a joke), while the fashions, attitudes and lifestyles that come with the territory make a mockery of anyone who doesnít walk the walk on a daily basis (and you could argue that they donít do much for those who do).

In 1975 United Artists sent Robert Altman a screenplay that made extensive use of the catalogue of country songs the company had recently purchased. This is the kind of cynical publicity exercise that would have been right at home in the 80ís, but Altman had better things to do with his time than direct a feature-length video clip. He commissioned a new script by Joan Tewkesbury, rounded up a bunch of actors who had never come within spitting distance of the A-list, and dragged cast and crew down to Nashville to shoot a 160 minute slice of Americana.

Anyone who has seen Short Cuts, PrÍt-ŗ-Porter or Gosford Park will have an idea of how it turned out. Altmanís major concern was to capture a unique time and place in American history, and Nashville shares the atmospheric visuals and extended character roster that characterised his later films. It canvasses a variety of topics Ė American politics, the undesirable side-effects of achieving celebrity status and our innate desire to be idolised by an audience, to name just a few Ė and while itís not as emotionally affecting as Short Cuts the loose, free-flowing narrative pays its own unique dividends.

Before you put the film on your must-see list, thereís one important consideration which cannot be avoided: if you harbour a deep-seated dislike of country music, youíll be hard-pressed to last the distance. Approximately half the running time is devoted to musical numbers (the cast mixes genuine country singers with actors who can hold a tune), ranging from the maudlin lamentations comedians use to denigrate the genre (check out For the Sake of the Children, in which Henry Gibson lists his offspring as the three reasons why he canít just walk out the door) to the kind of earnest, folk-tinged ballads that single-handedly gave punk a reason to exist (Iím Easy, which won an Oscar for best song).

My 400-odd CD collection contains exactly seven by country artists (two by Gram Parsons, four from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Ė God help me Ė John Denverís Favourites), so I wouldnít describe myself as a fan, but to my rock-attuned ear the majority of Nashvilleís performances were at least listenable, and several had me giving serious consideration to purchasing the soundtrack. However, if you truly detest this brand of down-home musicianship youíd be advised to steer clear, since having dramatic sequences constantly interrupted by music youíd rather be disembowelled than listen to doesnít make for an enjoyable viewing experience.

The filmís narrative spine is provided by a political campaign, with the characters interacting to various degrees en route to an all-star concert designed to recruit the locals to the cause. Certain plot threads arouse the kind of emotional investment that underpinned Short Cuts (a tone-deaf singerís quest for fame and a narcissistic folkieís bedroom liaisons are suitably memorable) but most of the roles and relationships are communicated via a series of brief snapshots, a scripting decision which will infuriate anyone expecting a traditional narrative.

This is the nature of the beast - if youíve got 80 minutes that donít involve someone belting out a tune and 24 major players, it leaves around 3 minutes of screen time for each of them to make their mark. Some do, others donít, but Tewkesbury obviously intended for her creations to behave like real people, which means thereís few of the contrived instances of high drama or exaggerated emotion many films rely upon to hook the audience. The upside of this approach is that weíre permitted to make our own judgements about the charactersí right to life without being swayed by blatant manipulation, and if we accept that nobodyís going to lay their souls bare for our amusement then watching them go about their daily business becomes surprisingly involving.

The film rewards close study, since the characters communicate vital information about themselves with throwaway lines, gestures and what they donít say, rather than what they do. The illusion of eavesdropping on genuine lives in progress is assisted by Altmanís penchant for having the camera wander off in the middle of conversations (which often continue in the background, making a case for watching a subtitled version on DVD) and the universally naturalistic performances by actors who obviously checked their egos at the door. Itís akin to crashing a party filled with strangers, picking up intriguing snippets of conversation on the way through, and using our imagination to fill in the gaps is a refreshing alternative to the interminable bouts of exposition that scriptwriters like to pass off as character development.

This free-form approach is the key to Nashvilleís success, for the combination of Altmanís pseudo-documentary shooting style, the castís low recognition factor and the saturation-level soundtrack lend the proceedings the appearance of reality. I wasnít in Nashville in 1975, but there can be little doubt that Altman captured the spirit of the country-music heartland as it was a quarter-century ago, giving us one of the most quintessentially American films of the era into the bargain. The fragmented narrative and understated dramatic elements demand a certain level of commitment, but itís the product of a master working at a peak heís rarely achieved since, and if you tune into its wavelength youíll be privy to an enveloping experience thatís impossible to digest in a single viewing.

See it, think about it, then see it again. Itís the voice of America, and the passage of time has done nothing to dull its clarity.

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originally posted: 02/15/02 12:00:00
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User Comments

7/27/13 Fire With Fire Altman shits on White Southerners,for 159 mins,in his usual murky,pretentious way 1 stars
4/02/13 David Hollingsworth one of the great films that made the 70s an iconic decade 5 stars
8/10/09 Jeff Wilder One of Altman's masterpieces 5 stars
4/09/09 penthouse p easily one of the greatest movies of all time... 5 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic terribly boring, lenghty and wildly over praised 2 stars
10/10/07 mr.mike overrated , and too many songs 3 stars
4/07/07 ken great movie...some of the songs are awful, not really country at all. I would call it folk. 5 stars
11/22/05 Kurtis J. Beard Altman is a genious. Nasville is his masterwork. Put two and two together. 5 stars
8/05/05 Nate Frary An interesting slice o' the times. I just didn't really care about any of the characters. 3 stars
8/03/05 Eric Rollins Boring and way too long. A real mess. 2 stars
1/14/05 The Crack A remarkable allegory for America as a whole during the seventies. 5 stars
10/03/04 Robert A Marvelous Abstract Canvas. 5 stars
8/30/04 DM Easily Altman's best film 5 stars
2/27/04 Betty White Rarely does a film entertain and lift your spirits come around like "Nashville". 5 stars
5/11/03 Dave K. One of the best - worth watching again and again 5 stars
4/26/02 Charles Tatum Altman's only decent film 5 stars
4/16/02 Phil M. Aficiando Hard work, but worth it. 1st time =3; second, with Altman comments =5. Grand old movie/opry 5 stars
8/27/01 spaceworm If you love Nashville, you lead a more satisfying life. 5 stars
4/23/01 Skip Young Ground-breaking. masterpiece. 5 stars
2/25/01 W. Sharif A two-hour and forty-minute episode of Hee Haw! But, it's good 4 stars
1/23/01 Craig Steven Lesser This movie was awful!!! If you are an insomniac, rent this movie. You'll be able to sleep 1 stars
11/11/00 matthew smith a delight from start to finish, great characters 5 stars
11/08/00 Elvisfan Along w/"Exorcist", the movie that made me love movies 5 stars
11/05/00 Pierce Lanson Oh come on!! Has nobody else seen this classic?? 5 stars
11/03/00 Bill Neal One of the best movies of all time!! A true classic!! Not to be missed.. 5 stars
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  01-Dec-1977 (R)


  05-Oct-2000 (M)

Directed by
  Robert Altman

Written by
  Joan Tewkesbury

  David Arkin
  Barbara Baxley
  Ned Beatty
  Karen Black
  Ronee Blakley
  Timothy Brown

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