“This ain’t Dallas, this is Nashville…sing!” This line, spoken after a key event at the end of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) is the moment that the real America comes to bear down on this myopic community of narcissists, losers and naïfs. As a delusional plea for calm, it draws the film’s political and personal narratives together and projects them onto a broader canvas. A film of endless riches, Nashville is a key cultural milestone in the shift from the Kennedy sixties to the Nixon seventies. It represents a bridge between sensibilities; politically, artistically and sociologically, the vast musical heritage of the titular town creates a schism in the scene.
The country music elders still rule the roost, but the counter-culture is nipping at their heels. It is at once a persuasive microcosm and an exaggerated fantasy. It’s a slice-of-life portrait of the town’s inhabitants in the mid-seventies, with dozens of characters elegantly interweaving and overlapping. What still amazes almost forty years on is the effortless fluidity. Nashville is a huge film, but it never once loses sight of its characters. The breadth of the scope is deceptive; it’s a picture that’s built on hundreds of small personal moments that culminate into something big. Ambition is a common trait among the inhabitants; there are those in its thrall and those who have forgotten what it means These are the dreamers and the hustlers, climbing to an uncertain goal just beyond the Grand Ole Opry.
Nashville works on so many levels. It’s a comedy; a musical; a showbiz satire; a political exposé; a state-of-the-nation address; an allegory; a soap opera. Multiple viewings shift its thematic emphasis, betraying the film’s amorphous nature. It can be as specific or as general as the audience wants it to be. To some viewers, it will be the man singing a song to the married woman he loves in a bar full of phonies. To others, it will get to the heart of America. What truly elevates Nashville is the way it blends the personal trajectories with the political. All the small dramas and affairs happen in the shadow of the forthcoming presidential primary and, specifically, the candidacy of unseen populist Hal Phillip Walker. Walker is the centre of the story; he’s the storm waiting to wake them all up. His campaign is ubiquitous throughout the picture, with vans driving around town projecting his propaganda.
Indeed, while we never actually see Walker first-hand, his unmistakable voice drifts in and out of Altman’s famously democratic sound design, underscoring unrelated dialogue with a sense of foreboding. He’s the undoubted pull of the film, drawing all the characters together, reluctantly or unknowingly, to the event that will inevitably come to define them. With its astonishing display of directorial control and rich thematic textures, Nashville is an undisputed masterpiece. Add to that the biting comedy and knockout musical sequences and it’s certainly tempting to make the claim for Altman’s all-star gem being the best American film of the 1970s.