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NASHVILLE
Blu-ray/DVD Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Barbara Harris, Karen Black, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum
Director:  Robert Altman
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  160 Minutes
Release Date:  December 3, 2013

"Come on, everybody, sing...somebody, sing!"

Film ****            

"We wonder what this year's gonna bring," muses the voice of a country singer, somewhere in the background, but still sounding out a sentiment most of America was feeling in 1975.  For a decade, it seemed our country was losing more and more of her innocence.  There was the assassination of Kennedy and other political and social leaders.  Then the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the brewing conflict it brought about here on the home front.  And, of course, the most current dark chapter of the time was when President Nixon resigned his office in the face of a scandal that would forever change the way we looked at politics in our country.  And out of this climate of chaos and uncertainty came a movie that both reflected upon and rose above the troubled times:  Robert Altman's masterpiece, Nashville.

What a big, beautiful, glorious, ambitious, funny, touching and unforgettable film this is!  Nashville is a picture with so much going for it, the very energy and life seems to break out and spill over the aperture borders and into your heart and mind.  It takes twenty four simple people and makes them each larger than life in his or her own way, creating what is actually an epic in the body of a more grass roots style movie. 

What Altman has created, in fact, is the ultimate cinematic balancing act.  The film blends music and politics along with comedy and tragedy.  And if these mixes weren't delicate enough, along comes the multitude of characters!  Each one has a story and something to say, and somehow serves to comment upon the strange political environment of the film in one way or another.  How can a director possibly control so many varying, and in some cases, conflicting elements?  The best analogy I can give is that of a lion tamer walking into a cage where the lions far outnumber him.  If he's talented and patient enough, and manages never to lose control over any of the elements surrounding him, it's a breathtaking and spectacular show.  Make one slip, and the results can be very messy indeed.

Let it be clearly stated that what Robert Altman created with Nashville added a new, fresh, and soon to be oft-repeated style of filmmaking to the cinema vernacular that would forever be associated with his name.  In recent years, successful directors like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have taken this same structure for their foundations, each building upon it in his own way.  There have been just as many, if not more, failed attempts to mimic this style of moviemaking.  Not even Robert Altman has always been successful in making a Robert Altman film.  But every imitation, be it good or bad, serves to forever proclaim the singular, classic greatness of Nashville.

So, what exactly IS Nashville?  A friend of mine from work asked me that very question when I excitedly delivered the news that I would be reviewing this disc.  I gave him the short answer:  "It's about politics and country music."  "Two things I can't stand," was his reply.

Truth be told, I'm not much into them, either.  But in the film, the music and the politics cleverly play off of one another:  sometimes in unison, sometimes in conflict.  Sometimes the music ironically reflects the mood of the characters or the action unfolding before our eyes.  Sometimes the political aspects, which are really the backbone of the film, seem to be almost an intrusion upon the stories, like a distant voice with SOMETHING important to say, but where nobody is paying attention anymore.

After a brilliant title sequence that seems to rip off those old K-Tel record commercials, we are introduced to a politician who is never seen.  His name is Walker, and most of his presence in the film comes from a gaudily decorated van with booming loudspeakers, playing recordings of his speeches.  Walker is head of the newly formed Replacement Party.  He wants change in this country, starting with removing the lawyers from Congress ("Have you ever asked a lawyer for the time of day?  He told you how to build a watch, didn't he?") to changing the national anthem, which is too hard to sing and nobody knows the words to, anyway.

Walker has invaded Nashville in an attempt to win the ever-important state of Tennessee.  He seems to be straining to get his message heard over the music that flows endlessly from the town.  Nashville is not a town with a political agenda, but more like a microcosm of Los Angeles.  Young kids with stars in their eyes get off the bus there day in and day out, though their dreams are of music, not of movies.  But though some would rather squelch the politics, they remain the center of the film, and everyone and everything in the story moves in a slow current toward Walker's big rally at the movie's climax, where foreshadowing has hinted to us that a major event will unfold.

Each character has his or her measure of importance, and thankfully, Altman found ways to give each one a moment in the sun, but instinctively allowing certain moments the time and space to breathe and develop, rather than feeling an urgent need to cut, cut, cut back and forth.  The story is easy to follow when you watch it, but rather difficult to describe, as are the complex inter-relations with the characters.  I'll happily leave those for you to discover.

Stylistically, Altman is successful in bringing his characters together in believable collages.  Take the opening welcome-back rally for the injured Barbara Jean (Blakley).  Most of the people are there for the event; some as fans, as fellow musicians Tom (Carradine) and Haven (Gibson), some as groupies, like L.A. Joan (Duvall), and others working on Walker's political agenda, like Reese and Triplette (Beatty and Murphy).  Another singer, Connie White (Black), shows up not in person, but in poster format!  Later, after a strange and funny automobile ballet, most of these characters end up in a huge pile-up together on the highway, leading to even more interaction.  Altman also is the only other major director I can think of apart from Orson Welles who understood the true nature of dialogue:  that it doesn't start and stop in nice convenient phrases and rhythms.  In Nashville, people talk over one another incessantly, like they do in real life.  It's a strange cacophony that few filmmakers have dared to experiment with, and Altman pulls it off masterfully.

The characters, oddly enough, share one common denominator despite their vastly varied backgrounds:  they are always 'on'.  From the singers who always wear their smiles and their down-home charm on their sleeves to the loony star struck BBC reporter (Chaplin), who loudly vocalizes composing a voice over in a junkyard to the images of crashed cars, to the politician's assistants, always ready with a handshake and a promise.  Some of the stars are so 'on', in fact, they agree to perform at Walker's rally provided that they NOT be associated with him politically, without realizing that just by being there, they ARE making a public association!

The cast of the film not only did their own singing; in most cases, they also wrote their own songs as well.  Ronee Blakley and Karen Black boast the movie's best voices, and a few well penned songs to boot.  Others don't fare quite as well, though that's often the point.  Sueleen Gay (Welles) dreams of stardom, but she can't sing a note.  Yet, our hearts are with her as she tries and tries again, and manages to keep a smile on her face amidst the boos, and even when circumstances lead her into the kind of show she'll probably never write home about.  And Keith Carradine wrote two of the film's best songs, the energetic gospel tune that ends the film on a desperately positive note, "It Don't Worry Me", and the Oscar winning "I'm Easy".  The music is important in a film like this, to be sure, and notice how it can draw a nice laugh with a cheesy lyric like "the pilot light of our love has flickered out".  But note also when Gibson sings "for the sake of the children, we must say goodbye", and how you can't help but remember that line later during another emotional scene.

In the end, music, politics, story and characters all converge at the aforementioned political rally in a way that seems effortless, yet masterful, and leads to an unforgettable conclusion.  One that makes as much a statement about our country's political climate, interestingly enough, as it does the state of our music industry:  in the face of chaos and tragedy, there is always someone waiting in the wings, ready to grab an empty microphone and take a turn at realizing a dream.  Sometimes, in the face of insanity, that's the only sane option afforded.

Video ****

Incredible!  I wasn't sure how this movie would fare on Blu-ray, but as usual, Criterion doesn't disappoint.  This is a big, sprawling canvas of activity and color, and it renders perfectly, with clarity and cleanness.  This is one of the best transfers of a 70s film I've yet seen!

Audio ***

The disc boasts a remastered 5.1 soundtrack, and mostly earns its points from the music.  Most live performances in the film sound like exactly that:  live musical experiences.  This includes using the rear channels for crowd noises and such, plus an extra nice touch of letting the reverb from the vocals flow from the fronts to the rears, like a real concert hall (this is duplicated, oddly enough, during one outdoor musical scene...oh, well).  The .1 channel isn't used much, if at all, but this isn't the kind of soundtrack where you'll miss it.  Dialogue is always clean and clear, spreading mostly across the front stage; even Altman's legendary multiple voice tracks come across with an impressive amount of distinction.  But the songs are at the heart of the audio, and they come across nicely...enough said.

Features ****

There is a terrific commentary track from the late Robert Altman (recorded in 2000), but other awesome features to boot.  There is a brand new hour-plus documentary on the making of the film, featuring new interviews with cast and crew members.  There is some behind-the-scenes footage, three archival interviews with Altman, and a demo recording of Keith Carradine playing and singing his songs from the movie.  The original trailer (a hoot) is also included.

This set includes the Blu-ray and the DVD of the movie; the DVD is divided into two discs (film and supplements).

Summary:

Nashville is simply one of the greatest American films ever.  It's an unforgettable mixture of humanity, humor, drama, politics and music, set against the south's premier city of dreams and heartache.  It is indeed, as the trailer proclaimed, "for movie lovers" and "the damnedest thing you ever saw".  It's absolutely astounding on this quality Blu-ray offering from Criterion, and not to be missed!

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