Fresh Eyes: Nashville (1975)
At this point in my Fresh Eyes column, I’m covering more and more films that I had absolutely no knowledge of before getting to college. I had no idea who Robert Altman was before talking to the rest of the TFS staff and beginning my formal education in film. In my more recent ventures into the Western, I kept hearing about, and eventually saw, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. After adoring Altman’s near total revising of the Western genre, I went out and blind bought the Nashville Criterion during the last major sale. Not knowing anything at all about this film, I took it on faith that this would be no less than stellar. I was not disappointed.
The blurb on the back of the Criterion case does a better job describing Nashville than I possibly could. Nashville is described as a “cornerstone of 1970s American moviemaking…is a panoramic view of the country’s political and cultural landscapes, set in the nation’s music capital.” So, if someone asked me to recount the beat by beat plot of Nashville, I honestly don’t think I could do it. Nashville is not so much about what happens, but more about how intertwined everything in this city really is, and the effects everything has on everything else. Nashville is a tone piece, a large interwoven tapestry of lives and industries, of politics and journalism. So, rather than my normal approach of discussing the plot and performances of the films, I’m instead going to highlight the aspects of Nashville that work the best and really drive home the film’s underlying political point.
Firstly, Nashville does an incredible job highlighting the different ways of life found within the titular city, and how the music industry encompasses all of them at once. The first scene of the film is set inside a recording studio and juxtaposes Haven Hamilton’s (Henry Gibson) patriotic anthem with a black gospel choir’s religious exaltation. The gospel choir relish the experience of their recording, dancing and clapping and generally having fun with it. This stands in stark contrast to Hamilton’s recording session, where all involved seem bored out of their minds, looking like they don’t believe a word of what’s being said. This juxtaposition highlights the patriotic performance that every American is expected to participate in, willingly or not, versus the absolute joy that comes from participating in something that one genuinely believes in with every fiber of their being, which the choir clearly does. On top of that, the choir cares more about the intent and expression of the music they are making, whereas Hamilton stops the recording at the smallest error from their piano player. This not only shows the differences between the two ways of life, but also how close they exist to each other without either party even caring about their presence. Everyone in the studio is in their own little box, focused only on what is in front of them, not worried about the world at large.
The sound design of the film helps reinforce this isolation within a crowd. There’s a constant hum of noise on the audio track, creating the sense of an actual city, full of real people who exist outside the confines of the film, as if they will keep going about their business even after the film reaches its end. But among this noise and hubbub, the characters only focus on themselves and ignore most everything around them. The only person not really concerned with herself is supposed BBC documentarian Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), and she is expectedly ignored by everyone she tries to talk to and interview. When she is actually acknowledged and allowed to proceed, her glaring ignorance shines through, making it apparent that she, too, rarely focuses on anything outside of her own sphere of influence.
This helps Nashville make its overarching point about America, that politics is an integral and undeniable part of everything that happens in American life. Throughout the runtime of the film, a Bernie Sanders-esque political candidate called Hal Phillip Walker is campaigning and arguing for a grassroots movement to rid the government of those who can profit off legislation. Walker’s campaign truck, which is constantly playing a recording of one of his speeches, is one of the first things heard in the film. The recording insists that every action is political and politics is unavoidable. But despite the constant warnings and reminders that politics is everywhere, the characters of Nashville repeatedly insist they cannot take political stances, from Opal to Haven Hamilton to the famous singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley). However, what every single one of these characters do not realize is that everything they do, say, or sing about is political. Hamilton’s song he is recording at the outset of the film carries a similar fervor for the idea of America as the gospel choir’s hymn being recorded two rooms over, despite being more subdued. Each song that crops up in the film praises a specific aspect of American life that country music usually would idealize. Nashville’s ending skewers this rejection of politics, as Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton get violently shot for finally embracing the political nature of their industry and singing at the Hal Phillip Walker rally.
However, after getting shot, Hamilton immediately leads the assembled crowd in “It Don’t Worry Me,” and the crowd follows his lead without second thought. This harsh segue is a scathing indictment of the American people’s tendency to ignore tragedy and bury our heads in the sand when we see something that scares us or should not be happening. In this way, Nashville is 42 years ahead of its time. This is a message America needs to hear now; we need to speak up when we have issues with the way things are. Claiming that we aren’t worried is not going to help anyone, it is only going to let the people doing bad things keep doing them. Denying the political nature of everything you do in life is not just a bad way to live, Nashville argues it is downright dangerous.