Perhaps there is no greater mark for a director than his or her name being associated not just with a genre but with a signature style uniquely his own. Speak the name “Robert Altman” and immediately his singular imprint leaps to mind. Nowhere is that style more fully realized than in Nashville. Hit the jump for my review of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD release of the film.
Nashville weaves a complex tapestry of twenty-four–twenty-four–main characters ranging from musicians and wannabes to political campaign managers and the press as the worlds of music and politics intersect. Nearly every main character is introduced in a masterful early airport scene in which most of Nashville turns out to welcome home singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), but with no regard to their individual importance as the camera drifts fluidly from one person to the next. Their lives continue to cross in myriad manners, culminating in the ultimate music-politics cross-pollination, a concert in support of a presidential candidate–but one that turns deadly, as one supposed wannabe, Kenny (David Hayward), shoots Barbara Jean, giving another dreamer, Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), her big break.
Nashville is the quintessential Altman film, even more defining than his groundbreaking comedy M*A*S*H, a movie that remains not only not dated, but remarkably prescient, even more true now than it was when made in its examination of sleazy politicians and political disillusionment, legendary performers and delusional dreamers, and the blurred lines of entertainment, news and the government. The story, intentionally so slow to develop as to almost not seem like a story at the beginning, comes together at the end with poignant punctuation.
The style of Nashville, unlike anything that had come before and still not often attempted today, is groundbreaking. Everything works. The acting, largely improvised, is excellent across the vast cast. With a high percentage of the cast appearing together in many scenes and the camera flowing from one to person the next, the actors often had no idea if what they were doing would actually make it into the film. Speaking of the camera, the photography takes on many forms, from the aforementioned fluidity to cinema verite in the several musical numbers, in which the crowd shots could have been lifted straight from a concert documentary.
The anamorphic 2.35 picture has been restored; I recall only one instance of dust being missed. Graininess and color are consistent with the time period; many of the wider shots experience blurry edges. Not a sound effects or heavy backing score film, the sound has two distinct elements, the dialogue-driven scenes and the musical numbers, both of which sound excellent in the disc’s 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio. Special note should be given to the quality of the dialogue, as this was one of the first films to have every actor miked going into a multi-track recorder.
Special features are slim compared to some Criterion offerings, but no less worth watching. There is the requisite trailer and director’s commentary, recorded in 2000, along with three equally interesting Altman interviews. Most fun–at least for someone fascinated by the evolution of soundtracks and who seeks out such rarities–are the Keith Carradine demo tracks for “I’m Easy”, “It Don’t Worry Me”, and “Big City Dreamin’”, recorded in Altman’s Los Angeles office and set to stills. The behind-the-scenes footage is also strong, raw and informative in a way that most modern, produced behind-the-scenes video is not. Finally, Criterion has produced a fascinating new documentary, The Making of Nashville, featuring cast, crew and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, among others.
Peering in our cinema rearview mirror, it can be difficult to understand how groundbreaking a particular film was at its time now that its unique style and technique has been replicated in the years since. Nashville, however, leaves no doubt.