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Robert Altman's 'Nashville': The First Modern TV Musical (VIDEO)

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! December 4, 2013 at 1:17PM

"Treme" embarked on its final season Sunday. "Smash" is gone. "Glee" and "Nashville" soldier on, but the bloom of pop-cultural significance is off their respective roses. With this age of the hour-long musical television series fast coming to a close, I set out searching for its origins, and I found it at the movies. Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) may be the finest American film of the 1970s -- and the first modern TV musical, too.
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Ronee Blakely as country star Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975)
Ronee Blakely as country star Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975)

"Treme" embarked on its final season Sunday. "Smash" is gone. "Glee" and "Nashville" soldier on, but the bloom of pop-cultural significance is off their respective roses. With this age of the hour-long musical television series fast coming to a close, I set out searching for its origins, and I found it at the movies. Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) may be the finest American film of the 1970s -- and the first modern TV musical, too.

"Nashville" weaves a world from flats and sharps, major and minor keys, from singing waitresses, high school marching bands, and country starlets. There's rock, folk, country, and gospel; Gwen Welles' tinny Sueleen Gay and Karen Black's soulful Connie White; intimate acoustic and big band bombast. Dispensing with non-diegetic music in favor of studio sessions and the Grand Ole Opry, Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury fashion a kind of "pure" musical -- thanks to Jim Webb's multi-track sound system, even the overlapping dialogue possesses a symphonic quality, always operating in several registers at once.

Of course, "Nashville" wasn't made for television, and two of television's most iconic series of the pre-"Nashville" era -- Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" (1952-1989) and "The Partridge Family" (1970-1974) -- placed music at their core. But reconsidering Altman's film, now available in a new DVD/Blu-ray dual edition from the Criterion Collection, it seems, in the other sense of the phrase, made for (today's) television. It's sprawling and anarchic, shifting gears from sorrow to satire and back again, featuring so many main characters (24) and subplots that it bears more resemblance to the ensemble complications of "Glee" or the microcosmic New Orleans of "Treme" than the focused melodrama of "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Singin' in the Rain." You might even say "Nashville" is one long television episode. The opening titles frame the film as an infomercial promoting an omnibus album, playing "right before your very eyes without commercial interruption" as if you'd recorded it on your DVR.

If "Nashville" suggests, and at times surpasses, serial television's rangy loose ends, television's recent musical dramas suggest the imprints of "Nashville," too. The band of eccentrics driving the note-perfect first season of "Glee" inhabit the fringes of the high school hierarchy as surely as L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) and BBC Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) sidle alongside country music fame. At least at first, ABC's "Nashville" and NBC's "Smash" aspired to a similarly detailed, lived-in authenticity, balancing the specific patois of hermetic worlds against the demands of network broadcasting. "Treme," closest kin to Altman's epic, blends politics and music to forge an equally ambitious, sometimes slack portrait of a city's multifaceted melody.

This article is related to: Reviews, TV, DVD / Blu-Ray, Genres, Musical, Classics, Directors, Robert Altman, Criterion Collection


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.