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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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Wendell Pierce in "Treme," on HBO
Wendell Pierce in "Treme," on HBO

If drawing such thematic connections seems like a stretch -- it's tough to imagine Ryan Murphy or Theresa Rebeck studying up on Altman while ruminating on the musical's televisual possibilities -- the fact remains that the series' sensibilities do not reflect direct descendance from classic Hollywood, "The Partridge Family," or "Fame." The genre is certainly no stranger to showbiz settings, but the common thread between "Nashville" and the modern TV musical is not the backstage vibe -- it's the sense each constructs, at its most electric, of music as the root structure of the characters' complex emotional lives rather than merely their outward expression.

All recognize that the creation of feeling, rather than its simple reflection, is what music is for: that the ecstatic brass of post-Katrina New Orleans and the ballads of the Broadway stage, the pop stylings of the music room and the homey comforts of a barroom country tune, often hide as much as they reveal. To watch as Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) falls in love with a boy he's just met while The Warblers breathe fresh life into "Teenage Dream," as Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee) tamps down her sadness to find the sultry, bright energy in "Rumor Has It," is to see that musical realism demands an understanding of the well-rehearsed fakery performance requires, and how it can carry us away nonetheless. "You may say I ain't free / It don't worry me," Barbara Harris' Albuquerque sings at the end of "Nashville," but of course it's a lie: the moment, like the movie, can paper over its profound undercurrent of anxiety but never dismiss it entirely.

Indeed, the best scene in "Nashville" lovingly renders this tie that music forges between performer and listener -- even, or perhaps especially, when the connection is more fictive than real. In a dim, smoky venue, womanizing star Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) dedicates the deliciously sexy "I'm Easy" to an unnamed paramour, and though it's aimed at straight-laced gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), sitting dazedly seduced at a back table, three other women gaze up at Tom, longing for the performance to be theirs.

Tom and Linnea listen to it again in his hotel room that night, but the moment has already passed, even for them. Her husband and children beckon; selfish and petulant, he calls up another partner before Linnea can pull on her skirt. In this moment "I'm Easy" suddenly changes -- more about disappointment than desire, more about hurt than hope -- and the outside world returns in all its troubled messiness. This is what unites "Nashville" and the modern TV musical: the same old song, discovered anew.

Robert Altman's "Nashville" is now available from the Criterion Collection. HBO's "Treme" airs Sundays at 9 p.m., ABC's "Nashville" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m., and FOX's "Glee" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. NBC's "Smash" is available on Amazon Video and iTunes.


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.