Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'Nashville' still worth a look


Got a hankering to watch an old favorite, Robert Altman's "Nashville," the other night.

So I dropped it into my Netflix queue and gave it a look. It has aged rather well.

"Nashville" is a brilliant mosaic of a movie. It weaves what at first looks like a big mess into a cohesive narrative that culminates with an infamous conclusion at Nashville's Parthenon. It is Altman's best film and a fine piece of art.

Ostensibly the film examines the country music industry, the rather nasty side of music superstardom, the difficulties of breaking into the business and the coincidental, almost casual, way that that our lives intertwine with others.

Real life Nashville didn't like the movie when it was released in 1975. They didn't like the music. They thought Altman was making fun of them. Altman thinks they were mad because he chose not to use their music in favor of letting the actors compose their own material. This was wise in a lot of ways, first and foremost because it adds an authenticity that otherwise wouldn't be there.

Henry Gibson is picture perfect as the aging star Haven Hamilton, something of a cross between Porter Wagoner and Ernest Tubb. Ronee Blakely, the best singer of the bunch, channels Loretta Lynn even better than Sissy Spacek would do five years later. Keith Carradine as the disgusting womanizer Tom Frank turns in not only a hell of a performance but also the best song of the film, Oscar-winner "I'm Easy."

And Lily Tomlin delivers a performance to remember as a gospel singer and mother caught in a difficult relationship with her husband, played to perfection by Ned Beatty. Her scenes are the most moving of the film, particularly the dinner table moment with her deaf son and the heartbreaking rendezvous with Tom Frank.

On and on I could mention the wonderful performances of the cast -- Keenan Wynn, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie's daughter, in a hilarious role), Shelley Duvall, Timothy Brown (doing a dead-on Charley Pride), Karen Black, Barbara Harris -- even Julie Christie and Elliott Gould show up as themselves. One of the most moving characters in the film is Glenn's turn as the Army private with a puppy-love devotion to Blakely's Barbara Jean.

I'm not giving away anything by telling you that there is an assassination at the end of the film. Altman was asked by a reporter after John Lennon's 1980 murder if he felt responsible because of what he had to say about political-like assassinations of entertainers in this film. In an interview included on the special edition DVD, Altman says he told the reporter, "No, but maybe you (and others) should feel responsible because you didn't heed my warning."

The ending is still shocking every time I see it. In some ways, this movie is more relevant today than it was 35 years ago. If you haven't seen "Nashville" do so, and do so quickly. If you love good movie making and good storytelling, you'll love this film.

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