Nashville (1975)

Dir. Robert Altman. Starring Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson, Michael Murphy

To me, the most remarkable thing about Nashville is that it places the American id not in New York City or Los Angeles, nor Boston or Texas or DC, but in Tennessee. It has the audacity to presume that something interesting has happened away from the coasts, that people are people even if they have never looked upon the sites of 5th grade American history courses, or cared very deeply about Hollywood.  Even though Nashville takes place just about entirely within the city limits (with the possible exception of Haven Hamilton’s Saturday afternoon party), there’s nothing particularly urban about the movie. Altman restricts himself from any helicopter establishing shots, bless him, and the film putters around indoors more often than not. Any number of bars and honky tonks, recording studios, megachurches, homes with front lawns and ’70s vintage kitchens. The effect is that this could be any big suburb or small city; it turns a night at the Opry and an afternoon at the Parthenon into scenes with added emphasis, using them as a framing device as much as the candidacy of Hal Phillip Walker. Nashville could have been Memphis or Knoxville, or maybe Cincinnati or Indianapolis or Denver. It just happens to have taken place there, and events just happen to roll out over the course of the weekend.

Nashville displays striking verisimilitude; in real life, the days run into one another, and with as many as twenty-four people to keep track of, none of whom appear to be doing anything now that they won’t still be doing in a year, it’s hard to imagine the film ending with a bang. People like Winifred (Barbara Harris) and the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum, nameless and silent and literally magical), Norman (nebbish David Arkin) and Opal, Literally the Worst (Geraldine Chaplin), none of whom are musicians or famous or noticeable, are the links in the film. All of them are cartoonishly attired; from Opal’s hat with the sixteenth/eighth note combination to the Tricycle Man’s yellow glases, not one of them is dressed like a normal person. They literally stand out in crowds. They are the transportation for other characters, the ones who appear in every bar and diner and airport and concert. In a film with all of these characters, they are the weird connectors; behind the glamor of a Connie White (Karen Black) or a Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) there is a chauffeur who wants to be the guy in the back seat or the fan using her accent to pretend she’s a journalist, and what’s more, without them the film is just the paparazzi’s exhibition of fake country stars. As awful as Opal is, or annoying as Norman is, they’re closer to being people than most of the famous people in the film.

Curiously enough, the film’s famous ending does end with a bang after all. It’s a two-part scene, really, both of them utterly flawless. The first is Barbara Jean’s heretofore unheard song, “My Idaho Home,” and the second commences once she’s been shot and killed by an assassin in the crowd.

In a movie that’s filled with just about every kind of country song imaginable, from the credible (“Bluebird,” “Memphis”) to the legitimately good (“Dues,” “Since You’ve Gone,”) to the comically awful (the entire oeuvre of Haven Hamilton), “My Idaho Home” is idiosyncratic and chilling and lovely. (It’s ironic that the song from the film which won at the Oscars, “I’m Easy,” is not country at all.) “My Idaho Home” itself is characteristic of the kind of rambling that Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley, who is perfect in this part) has been prey to throughout the movie, but in a song it makes a strange kind of sense. The song is as much the story of the narrator’s father as anything else, although grandparents and the narrator’s mother pop up as well. The chorus is haunting and lovely.

Down the highways

On the beaches

Just as far as memory reaches

I still hear Daddy singin’ his ol’ Army songs

We’d laugh and count horses as we drove along

 

We were young then

We were together

We could bear floods and fire and bad weather

And now that I’m older, grown-up, on my own

I still love Momma and Daddy best,

My Idaho home

The Walker campaign is a clear statement of political disgruntlement, led largely by college students and stridently opposed to significant American tradition. Scott Glenn’s mostly anonymous soldier who signifies himself by never changing out of his uniform gets a tongue-lashing from Tom about dead kids in Vietnam. And in real life, Nixon resigned the year before. In the nadir of American confidence in government, there is a massive flag that waves as Blakley’s positively ethereal voice hangs over it. “We were young then,/We were together” rings over a flag billowing from left-to-right. It’s a shocking, gorgeous moment, elegiac and nostalgic. It’s a moment which is honestly contrived. Every American feels his ego stoked or his nationalism petted by some allegorical portrait of America; it worked so well on me that my feelings are hurt.

Barbara Jean is shot and presumably killed by Kenny Frasier (David Hayward), who’s been keeping a pistol in a fiddle case all movie, not long after “My Idaho Home.” Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson, see the note on Ronee Blakley), the film’s Napoleon stand-in who nurses political ambitions , takes the microphone and gabbles in shock. Winifred, who has spent most of the film eating whatever she can get her hands on and trying to be discovered (unfortunately, this happens at inopportune times, like at the motor speedway during a race). She breaks into a song that’s been referenced twice before in the film, “It Don’t Worry Me,” with its consistent rhythm and its easy-to-remember chorus.

It don’t worry me

It don’t worry me

You may say that I ain’t free,

But it don’t worry me.

Within a few minutes, as the principals of the film have left the stage (Michael Murphy’s Triplett, the arrogantly urbane Walker rabble-rouser, and Delbert and Linnea Reese, Ned Beatty dragging Lily Tomlin away) or stand there shellshocked, disbelieving (Glenn’s soldier, Gwen Welles’ untalented waitress, Sueleen), Winifred stands by herself at the front of the stage while the African-American gospel group Linnea was to perform with sings backup. It’s not surprising to me that in the aftermath of the death of American royalty, it’s the white trash and the African-Americans, the put-upon in Nashville, who are forced to cope with tragedy. The rich and the elite of Nashville musical society escape the scene, grab lifeboats from the sinking ship. Winifred and the gospel choir have no recourse but to stay at the Parthenon and react, and they do so with delicious black humor. The lyrics of “It Don’t Worry Me” concern tax relief and farming, but in reality they’re singing:

Country star just been shot down

It don’t worry me

It’s a savage message but fitting. And funny enough, it’s the message that the anonymous bourgeois crowd, children and adults alike, seize onto. Barbara Jean’s performance of “My Idaho Home” is lovely, but it doesn’t garner much more than applause. Something about Winifred’s appearance feels honest and real, and everyone begins to sing along with her and engage with her in a way that they never could with Barbara Jean. Barbara Jean inspired worship, not devotion. The prediction of Nashville of post-nadir America is that after being hurt as badly as it was, being shocked as far as it was, is that it will have to turn away and refuse to play along any longer. Cynically, we’ll all have to sing and clap along to “It Don’t Worry Me” and hope like heck it’s the truth.

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