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Is the Music in Robert Altman's 'Nashville' Its Strength or Its Achilles' Heel?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire December 4, 2013 at 3:58PM

Reconsidering the ersatz country of Altman's best-loved film.
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Henry Gibson as country superstar Haven Hamilton in Robert Altman's 'Nashville'
Henry Gibson as country superstar Haven Hamilton in Robert Altman's 'Nashville'

It's Nashville week at The Dissolve, showcasing a series of pieces on Robert Altman's landmark landmark 1975 film, which has just been released on a new Criterion Collection dual-format edition. Will Harris' interview with Ronee Blakely, who plays the movie's unstable country music star Barbara Jean, makes for fine reading, but I want to back up to yesterday's keynote by Noel Murray, who views the film through the eyes of a Nashville native.

Although Murray loves the glimpse of the long-gone city he grew up in, he cautions that it was never meant to be taken as a realistic portrait of Nashville, or the music industry that was, and to a large extent, still is, headquartered there.

That particular take on Nashville is based on the misperception that Robert Altman set out to make a movie about country music. That was more the goal of producer Jerry Weintraub, who saw in this project a hit soundtrack album waiting to happen. Altman, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to make a grand statement about celebrity, politics, the deep-rooted conservatism of the South, and a nation on the cusp of its bicentennial. Knowing nothing about Nashville, he sent screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury on a couple of scouting trips, which she came back from loaded down with anecdotes about a medium-sized city with a small-town vibe, where she kept running into the same people whether she was visiting a recording studio, a racetrack, a church, or a bar.

This leaves me, a devout Robert Altman fan who nonetheless finds Nashville's version of country music to be extremely problematic, in a bit of a pickle. Altman admitted at the time he didn't know much about country music, and rather than hire on locals to lend the movie a touch of authenticity, he had the songs written and performed by his actors, many of whom were not experienced musicians. There are a handful of memorable songs, notably Blakely's "Dues" and Keith Carradine's Oscar-winning "I'm Easy," but a lot of it is junk. One might argue that Altman's target was not country music itself but the synthetic version represented by the Grand Old Opry, and that's fair enough, but considering that 1975 was also the year Loretta Lynn released "The Pill," painting Music Row as a monolithic bulwark of cultural and aesthetic conservatism seems more than a bit reductive. You need only glance at the loving long takes of Kansas City to see how differently Altman treated a music he had loved and respected his whole life with Nashville's glib take on C&W.

The trouble is that Murray has a pretty compelling counter-argument, one that to make matters worse sounds a lot like one I made in this space not long ago:

[T]he movie’s version of country music, while tuneful, is intentionally cartoonish. Which means that as part of coastal critics' apparently eternal need to protect defenseless middle-Americans from mean-spirited showbiz types like Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, and Robert Altman, some tastemakers grumbled about Nashville, claiming Altman was making fun of hicks and disrespecting a grand tradition of American folk music. 

I still flinch at Nashville's caricature of Charley Pride, the culturally if not musically groundbreaking African-American country singer, as an assimilationist dupe, which bothers me in a way that, say, Barton Fink's snide version of Clifford Odets doesn't. The Coens identify deeply with their protagonist even as they magnify his faults, but Altman's Tommy Brown is glimpsed only in drive-by. 

Not surprisingly, country music stars bristled at Nashville: In a 20th-anniversary history of the film, the Nashville Scene's Jim Ridley writes, "Brenda Lee said that she had 'one word' that would describe the movie, and her husband, Ronnie Shacklett, begged her not to say it." 

But Ridley also writes that Nashvillians have come around on the film, which seems positively progressive compared to some that followed:

From a cinematic standpoint, it's easy to see why Nashville caused such a furor when it premiered in the summer of 1975. What’s harder to see, after the sledgehammer excesses of subsequent media satires, ranging from Network to Natural Born Killers, is why the movie offended so many people, particularly Nashvillians. Compared to the genial condescension of a star vehicle like Steel Magnolias or the outright prejudice of a tub-thumper like Mississippi Burning, Nashville's portrait of the South seems downright generous.

That doesn't help me like Nashville's songs any better -- though this tribute album featuring Neko Case and Kelly Hogan does, a bit. Have a listen to "200 Years," by Nashville's ersatz star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) and see if you think Altman's playing fair.


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