illustration by Brianna Ashby
“Let’s consider our national anthem. Nobody knows the words. Nobody can sing it. Nobody understands it. I suppose all the lawyers supported it, because a lawyer wrote the words and a judge wrote the tune.”
—Hal Philip Walker, Nashville
Released in the summer of 1975, Robert Altman’s Nashville opens with an almost painfully hokey ode to the country’s bicentennial. With a military drumbeat, “200 Years” lists generations of military achievements, equates prayer with patriotism, and argues in its chorus that America “must be doing something right” to last as long as it has. It’s an over-the-top parody of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA” written nine years before Lee Greenwood ever wrote “God Bless The USA.” But diminutive superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) can’t seem to get the song right. First the session is interrupted by Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a nosy radio reporter from England, and then Hamilton repeatedly blames one of the session players for screwing everything up. “You get your hair cut,” he tells the piano player, stomping out of the studio. “You don’t belong in Nashville.” (In one of the film’s many self-aware reflections, the pianist is played by Richard Baskin, the song’s composer.)
Haven Hamilton is a glittering star in the country music galaxy and his diva-like behavior is tolerated, both by the other musicians and by his family. (In Nashville music is nearly always a family business.) With his sparkly white jumpsuit and massive furry toupee, he’s a ridiculous man, but his fans and business collaborators eat it all up.
Things are harder for Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), the wildly popular singer-songwriter who’s just returning to Nashville after a fire landed her in the hospital for a while. Barbara Jean wears all white, just like Hamilton, but she has none of the sparkles and none of the power. She sees adoring fans through the airport windows but collapses on her way to meet them. Later she has an on-stage breakdown during some between-song banter. The fans boo, and controlling husband/manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) steps in to defend her. Confined to the hospital room, though, he scarfs down Kentucky Fried Chicken and yells at her when he fears that she’s having “another one of those nervous breakdowns.” Notably, the film never directly states the origins of the fire that put Barbara Jean in the hospital in the first place.
The lessons of Nashville resemble those of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, an equally epic film that uses a specific city (Rome) to analyze the dying heart of a nation. In both films men achieve a life of fame and comfort with minimal effort, while women learn from a young age that they’ll only get any attention if they constantly hurt themselves, preferably in public. In Sorrentino’s film the pain is largely physical, but the stages of Nashville are too genteel to allow for actual violence. Until the end of the film, when they aren’t.
Nashville has twenty-four main characters, some more important than others, but that’s a lot for a drama or even a musical. Still, this was the middle of the seventies, the heyday of the disaster epic. The craze kicked off in 1970 withAirport and grew with The Poseidon Adventurein 1972. The highest-grossing movies of 1974, the year before Nashville came out, includedThe Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport 1975, all of which crammed a reality show’s worth of minor celebrities into a closely confined space. The casts were all over the place (Helen Reddy! O.J. Simpson! Myrna Loy!) and tension mounted as time ticked down for one reason or another.
Nashville has many elements of a disaster film. The cast was large and peculiar—Henry Gibson and Lily Tomlin were both best-known for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, after all—and the film starts with an event that affects nearly every single character. But the disaster here is pretty minor: a massive traffic pileup that unites twenty-one of the film’s twenty-four characters. Despite Opal carrying on into her microphone about “mangled corpses”, there seems to be only one actual injury, and the pile-up is so insignificant that none of the characters even mention it again afterwards. So maybe the disaster is just life itself?
But Nashville is a musical as well as a disaster movie. There are more songs performed in the film than there are actual actors, which is to say that a whole lot of the screen time is taken up by musical numbers. There are country songs and gospel songs and folk-rock songs, most of which were written specifically for the film, many by the actors themselves, at Altman’s encouragement. Most of them are performed on stage, at places like the Grand Ole Opry, the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor, and Nashville’s reproduction of the Parthenon.
Musicals weren’t very popular in the mid-seventies. American audiences much preferred bleak realism and Mel Brooks slapstick. The era of family-friendly blockbusters like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins soon led to flop after flop in the late sixties (Dr. Dolittle, Star!, Paint Your Wagon). Mainstream musicals never went away completely, but despite the occasional critical success (Cabaret, 1972) or commercial hit (Grease, 1978), they’d never again be as prominent as they once were.
In the early sound era, musicals were always about putting on a show. There were subplots and love interests and auditions, but everyone’s eye remained fixed on the big show at the end. In Nashville the big show is an outdoor rally for Hal Philip Walker, a third-party presidential candidate who appeals to draft-age youth by mixing Libertarian ideals with mysterious one-liners. (“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”) Walker is never seen but often heard, represented on-screen solely by a slow-moving white van. (A motor vehicle representing a man named Walker pretty accurately sums up the film’s opinions about political rhetoric.) The irony of the rally, though, is that none of the performers really care about Hal Philip Walker, anyway. Barbara Jean doesn’t care. The folk-rock trio don’t even vote. The gospel choir is probably only there because their leader is married to one of the organizers. The dotty Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) finagles her way to the edge of the stage but there’s nothing to indicate that she cares, either. Haven Hamilton cares, but only at the last possible minute, when Walker’s smarmy spokesman mentions the possibility of Hamilton becoming governor one day.
In Nashville, the men wheel and deal while the women are largely passive and mostly at the mercy of buffoonish husbands and business managers. Altman’s film was criticized in some circles on its release for being sexist, but sexist characters and a sexist film are not the same thing. On the contrary, the women here are often far more sympathetic and interesting than the men. They also get the meatiest roles. (At the Golden Globes the following year, Nashvilleset a record when four of its stars were nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Henry Gibson was the only actor nominated.)
Nine of the twenty-four characters in Nashville are women, and six of those women are performers. There are the big names, the firmly established Barbara Jean and the up-and-coming Connie White (Karen Black); Linnea (Lily Tomlin), who fronts an otherwise all-black gospel choir, and Mary (Cristina Raines), the center of a Peter, Paul and Mary-esque folk-rock trio; and then there are Sueleen and Albuquerque, the two women trying the hardest to be heard. All these women are flawed but likable, with the possible exception of Connie, though her character is underwritten—maybe intentionally—so we can’t really say what her flaws are, beyond that she’s popular and wears bright flashy reds while the country establishment dresses all in white. Early in the film, one of Hal Philip Walker’s groupies sticks a bumper-sticker over a blown-up photo of her face. Her three songs, delivered one after the other in a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, are decent songs performed decently. She’s fine, in other words.
Like Connie White, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) is ambitious, but unlike White she lacks any kind of songwriting or vocal talent. As the audience, we give her the benefit of the doubt when we see her working in the airport diner, singing a composition called “I Never Get Enough” to the unresponsive Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum). But we laugh later when she choreographs a number in the mirror, stuffing her bra with gym socks. The song is called “Let Me Be The One,” and as she says the word one she signs the number with her hands. Sueleen gets her big chance, in a room full of drunken businessmen, and she sinks to their level (quite literally, since the stage descends from the ceiling.) The inebriated jeering turns to applause when she starts stripping, and after the second song she flees the stage.
Sueleen doesn’t have a husband to manage her, which is maybe part of why she’ll never be successful. Albuquerque (real name Mildred) has one and she can’t wait to get away from him. When the pileup strands all the characters on the highway she bolts, trying her best to integrate herself into the top tier of Nashville celebrity. It works. When Haven Hamilton throws a party on his property, Elliott Gould (playing himself) is asked to leave, while the uninvited Albuquerque just hangs out on the grass, with no one paying her any mind. And then, by the end of the film, she’s suddenly the only one anybody’s paying attention to.
The men in Nashville don’t seem to like women very much, with only a couple of minor exceptions. There’s the military man whose mother saved Barbara Jean from the fire, and there’s the old man in the hospital who’s watching his wife die while looking after an airhead niece who calls herself LA Joan—but these characters are all peripheral to the music industry.
There’s Tom (Keith Carradine), of the folk-rock trio Bill, Mary and Tom. He likes women a lot, or at least likes sleeping with them. He probably doesn’t like them in the right ways. When he sings “I’m Easy” on stage one night, there are no less than four women in the club who think he’s singing directly to them. He takes three of them to bed, and at least once his own song is playing on the 8-track as they lay in bed together. (Does he make every woman do this?) The next morning, when one woman leaves he can’t even wait until she’s gone before calling the next one. When she kisses him on the forehead to say goodbye, she is fully aware that Tom is just an overgrown child.
But back to that national anthem.
If Nashville proposes that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a bad choice, as an alternative it recommends “It Don’t Worry Me,” composed (in the real world) by Keith Carradine. Written (in the film) for Bill, Mary and Tom’s debut album, the song appears in the film no less than seven times. In the noisy opening credits montage, after the car crash. At a race track. And finally, in the film’s last scene, when Albuquerque finally gets her big chance at the mic.
“It Don’t Worry Me” is the opposite of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It doesn’t require a whole lot of range and no one’s voice is going to crack on the word “free,” which it does, frequently, whenever people sing the national anthem. It doesn’t have the flowery syntax, no “O, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” There are no big words or nineteenth-century contractions. There aren’t actually very many words at all.
Nashville’s nowhere near Hollywood, but it’s not all that far from Washington. A ten-hour drive. (According to Google Maps it’s a prophetic 666 miles.) And “It Don’t Worry Me” is the kind of song that would have gone over well in Washington in 1975, or for that matter, in 2015. It encourages apathy. War, inflation, a bad economy: “It don’t worry me.” Freedom doesn’t mean what you think it does: “It don’t worry me.” The assassination of a beloved country music star? That don’t worry the people of Nashville, either.
Matthew Lawrence is a writer and editor living in Providence, Rhode Island. He co-edits Headmaster, the art magazine for man-lovers, and sometimes hosts all-ages spelling bees. He is on twitter a lot at @beefcakefactory.