Less a story or even a proto-“network narrative” than a panoramic portrait of America’s Music City, Nashville was shot in the autumn of 1974, smack-dab in the middle of the New Hollywood decade, that brief golden age when big money flowed for the movie brat mavericks. With the commercial success of M*A*S*H and the creative peak of McCabe and Mrs. Miller still fresh in people’s minds, 1974 should have found Robert Altman at the height of whatever power and influence he’d ever glean, but United Artists turned down the project and Altman wound up making it with ABC. The budget was over $2 million, not exactly peanuts, but we’re talking about a movie with 24 main characters, a steady stream of often elaborate musical performances before huge audiences, a major car accident on the freeway, a public assassination, and god knows how many locations. So the shoot was hurried, cramped and chaotic by most standards. The driver of the truck that cruises through Nashville blasting political speeches was told to just keep trying to invade the production on a daily basis—that was the extent of his direction. Altman tells a story about how he never even saw costumes until he arrived at a location; occasionally he would get a complete stranger, hired (or not) as an extra, to swap outfits with one of his stars. Whether frenzied or fun times, such circumstances were the lifeblood of Altman’s best filmmaking, an aesthetic built on invention, resourcefulness and capricious mischief. Put mics everywhere and keep those cameras rolling: Nashville was made like a documentary. And much of it plays like a great party.
But here’s what I forgot: while Nashville’s broad satire—‘200 Years,’ the stately anthem that kicks off the movie, is truly the dumbest, most ridiculous but of glitter-country patriotism imaginable—and teeming canvas left little room for sentiment, there comes a moment in the final third or so of its 160-minute runtime when we are suddenly greeted with a handful of scenes of subtle yet devastating emotional impact, most notably when Lily Tomlin’s married, unlikely gospel choir leader has to exit her hotel room tryst with Keith Carradine’s younger, handsome womanizing folk-rocker, and Carradine puts on a show of calling up another woman to take Tomlin’s place, like a guy who’s still got the munchies and needs to order another pizza. The movie ends with real-life singer Ronee Blakley’s fragile singing star—the closest thing to the real thing in Altman’s musical menagerie, she gives a strangely affecting performance—singing a song about her Idaho roots to a huge crowd before some freak pulls out a gun and shoots her for reasons no one really knows. Exiting stage left, Blakley’s taken away, bleeding, unconscious, her fate uncertain. Minutes later the entertainment resumes with Barbara Harris stalking the stage to sing ‘It Don’t Worry Me.’ The gospel choir joins in. The crowd settles down. Kids are held aloft. People look happy again. Maybe they’ll vote for that guy the truck keeps telling them about. The show must go on. And through Altman’s wry gaze that perseverance is neither cynical nor courageous. It’s just the way things are in this place like no other. Crazy shit happens. Might as well keep singing.