I don’t know what I expected Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE was, but not this. It’s about 2 1/2 hours, and it’s about Nashville, and it’s about America, and I don’t know what it’s about. It might be stretching it to describe it as having a plot. It’s a huge cast, too many characters for me to keep good track of, and it purposely doesn’t bother with explaining who they are. But I rarely felt lost or bored.
The characters are mostly people hovering around Nashville’s famous music industry (circa 1975). There’s an old country legend (Henry Gibson), a white gospel singer (Lily Tomlin), a black country singer (Timmy Brown), some rock n roll guys, some managers and associates and what not. And they’re all kinda buzzing around the same events: a ceremony for returning soldiers at the airport, a traffic jam on the way home, an outdoor concert, a fundraiser, a concert for an independent presidential candidate whose platform we hear blaring out of speakers all throughout the movie but whose face we never see.
There’s a singer kinda based on Loretta Lynn who collapses and ends up in the hospital. It took me a while to recognize her as Ronee Blakley. I never realized the mom from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET won an Oscar. There’s a soldier (Scott Glenn, SUCKER PUNCH) who is just a fan who seems to be following her everywhere. Creepy, but not too creepy to get a good laugh when he’s suddenly jolted awake in the morning after an all night vigil at her bedside, says “Oh, I must be in the wrong room!” and zips out of there.
There are a couple aspiring songstresses holding their heads high through the various humiliations of trying to make it. They’re getting lucky breaks but also unlucky – one of them gets a big gig but it’s at a race track and you can’t hear a note she sings over the car engines. One of them doesn’t get taken seriously enough, one of them too seriously. That one sounds just like Olive Oyl, which is weird because the actual Olive Oyl, Shelley DuVall, is also in the movie, but playing some kind of shallow hanger-on. She gets some good laughs with her over-the-top fashion. She seems on the verge of major offense when she’s at a black club wearing an afro wig, but thankfully nothing happens.
Keith Carradine meanwhile is going through the movie trawling for pussy. I apologize but saying it nicer does not communicate it accurately. He acts like he has no knowledge of or responsibility for breaking hearts and marriages, including his own bandmate’s. In one kinda nefarious scene he performs a solo tune, a beautiful song that ended up winning an Academy Award in real life. Such a sensitive, artistic soul… and yet the sonofabitch knows there are four different women in the place thinking or hoping he’s singing about them. And he’s happy to let them all believe it.
One of them is Lily Tomlin, lured in despite her marriage, and despite the fact that the chief from ROBOCOP (Robert DoQui) is at her table trying to have a moment with her. (No joke, the last time we hear of his character he’s headed for Detroit. This is a prequel!)
Jeff Goldblum (DEATH WISH) is also in there. I’m not sure what his character is supposed to be except that he wears big sunglasses and drives a 3-wheel motorcycle that another character compares to EASY RIDER. This is Robert Altman so it’s alot of improvisation and what not so a character like him can keep showing up and not necessarily have a reason to be there. But I appreciate seeing him.
All this probly says something about American culture at the time, a sloppy mixture of celebrity, tradition and counterculture. To me the funniest character is the reporter from the BBC who’s reporting on the Nashville experience. She seems blissfully unaware of how condescending her anthropological approach is, and also that people are unimpressed by the letters “BBC” (they don’t know what the fuck that is). I also don’t think she recognizes that she’s succumbing to the values she’s reporting on, fucking a rock star, etc. In one scene she rudely walks away from a conversation because “Elliot Gould!” Then she has to get lectured for bothering poor Elliot Gould, trying to interview him at a party.
I’m glad I watched this, I enjoyed it and I think I get what made it revolutionary at the time. It’s definitely a good time capsule and a unique viewing experience. But I have to admit that whatever makes it considered such an enduring classic must be lost on me. So maybe some of you guys can school me.
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I spent a Friday night in Nashville (the city) and I was impresssed. The movie didn’t remind me of the places I saw. As I mentioned in the Dolly Parton piece I’m not a country music person. Like anybody I like Johnny Cash (who has a museum downtown) and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to dig on some other old school stuff like Loretta Lynn, a little Kris Kristofferson, a little Willie Nelson. But any of the popular country styles of the last 30+ years are, to put it generously, completely unappealing to me, so why should I care about the country music capital of the world today?
I thought it would be interesting, but I was surprised how instantly it spoke to me. Broadway – from what I could tell the main night life strip in downtown Nashville – welcomes you with wall-t0-wall music. It comes from everywhere, all directions. Most of the establishments are bars, and all of them have live bands. You walk beneath all kinds of neon and vintage signs, down a block past five, six windows in a row and you see the backs of musicians playing against the front window in each one. I hear there are legendary studio musicians who come in for jam sessions, and a million aspiring superstars chasing their dreams, trying to be discovered (which I’m against ’cause it makes karaoke inaccessible to the common man). But I’m not sure I was witnessing any of that. I just saw humble small time working musicians, but the sheer number of them was overwhelming, the amount of choice. They had to work hard to keep you from walking next door, or the door after that, or the one after that. Or in some cases upstairs.
We went into a place called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Now that I research it it turns out it’s a world famous honky tonk where Willie Nelson got his start. But I didn’t realize that at the time, I just saw a huge bar, kind of a dive, three stories, each with a different band playing. Each floor had a full bar but there were also girls with coolers full of bottles and cans to sell for cash. We stayed at the top for a bit, the band was pretty traditional bar band but with “Walk the Line” and “Friends In Low Places” and stuff mixed in with their rock covers. The back wall was covered in Sharpie graffiti, including a prominent display from rival colleges back in Washington state. A little piece of home.
[NOTE: The Wikipedia entry for Tootsies says they have two stages. I really thought I remembered going through three floors of bands. If I imagined it just take it as an impressionistic description.]
I should’ve got a picture of the Clint Black neon sign, that’s something that would be surprising in Washington. When I sat down the flat screen above the bar was showing a Larry the Cable Guy ad for Prilosec. That’s right, a pot-bellied redneck stereotype riding a 4-wheeler and telling you to go ahead and cram as many cheeseburgers into your mouth as you can fit because now there’s medicine to make it hurt less. It felt funny to watch that in the heart of Tennessee, especially since unlike the Dollywoodians the people hanging out on Broadway were very fit, lots of muscular dudes in Under Armour shirts and twenty-something women in their pretty college graduation dresses.
This is part of the Nashville night life, but it’s also the tourist area. Some people call it “Nash Vegas.” There are plenty of chintzy souvenir shops, and photo opportunities like the Ryman Auditorium, which was once the Grand Ole Opry. Here you can see a kid who passed out next to the Ryman and the “Birth of Bluegrass” historical marker:
The best spot I saw was the famous Ernest Tubb Record Shop, which (like the Ryman) was host to many legendary performances and is featured in the movie COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER. The walls are covered with album covers, articles, photos and other ephemera. There’s especially alot of Loretta Lynn stuff and some of her costumes displayed on the stage at the back. The actual record inventory is limited to country and bluegrass, so it’s a little sparse compared to a normal record store. I just bought the newish Johnny Cash release, Out Among the Stars, unreleased material from some sessions in the ’80s. It turns out the album has a song called “Tennessee” and there are lyrics talking about Nashville and the Opry and stuff, so it’s a perfect souvenir.
Look at that sign! It’s beautiful. Sometimes walking around there you feel like you might’ve been transported through time. Then you notice there’s a URL on the reader board.
Luckily the old guy running the place seems happy to talk tourist shit, particularly about the filming of the movie. He was real proud of the notoriety. I guess you’d have to be to work there.
A not-historic thing I saw not far from there was the Rocket Fizz soda and candy shop. They got a hell of a collection of glass bottled sodas from all over the place that I’d never heard of, and I’m somebody who looks for those sorts of things. I was impressed they had Pig Iron Cola from a barbecue place in Seattle. So far away from home and I keep running into things like that. You see, people? We’re all connected. But I’m kind of glad they don’t have one of those stores near me because I’d have to try all of the colas.
It was kind of funny how much they were pushing the NBC TV show Nashville on billboards and signs and shit. I know it’s a popular show, but I wouldn’t think locals would be into it, and why should a tourist care about that soap opera shit while in the actual Nashville? Did they push 90210 like that in Beverly Hills back in the day?
Well, yeah, they probly did. But Nashville doesn’t need it. Have some pride, Nashville. You don’t gotta have a TV show to be cool. Just be yourself.
Let me tell you my favorite thing that happened in Nashville. Not braggin or nothin but I had a lady with me. We were just walkin around soaking in the atmosphere and stopped momentarily looking into the open door of one of these clubs. A young cowgirl (hat, boots, cutoffs) was walking around with a basket of roses I think she was selling, and she saw my lady do a little bit of a neck move in solidarity with the people dancing to the band inside.
“You better take that girl in that bar so she can sheck it!” she advised me in her thick Tennessee accent, and walked right past us.
Eventually we ended up at a place with some punk rock lookin rockabilly dudes. A singer, a drummer, a guitarist and a standup bass. This seemed to be where the hipsters were, but also a drunk lady from an older generation who kept yelling for them to play AC/DC. The band taunted her saying that they only played American music, but eventually negotiated that if she put twenty bucks in the tip jar they would play an AC/DC song. She did, and they complied, and when we left I believe they were three songs and $60 into the catalog of AC/DC songs they knew how to play.
When we headed back to the hotel we could hear a woman belting out “I Had the Time of My Life” from some bar five or six blocks away. And I could see where she was coming from.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.