Nashville review – Robert Altman’s country classic still sings

With its constant soundtrack of country music and political commentary, Altman’s sprawling state-of-the-nation epic reverberates with the troubled zeitgeist of the 70s

“This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville! SING!” The desperate speaker is rhinestone-suited old-time country singer Haven Hamilton, played by Henry Gibson, in this rereleased state-of-America ensemble classic from 1975, written by Joan Tewkesbury and directed by Robert Altman. The toupee-wearing star has just been shot in the arm by a lone gunman in the crowd at a political rally featuring wholesomely patriotic country music, and the crowd is on the verge of panic. Only soothing tunes will calm them, and eventually a sprightly number called It Don’t Worry Me finally gets them singing along, forgetting all about the murder attempt they’ve all just witnessed. (Like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, from a year later, this is a movie that is attempting to deal with the trauma of the Kennedy assassination as much as, or more, than the Vietnam war.)

It’s an appropriately sensational and bizarre set piece to close this unique film and, watching it again for the first time since its last revival 17 years ago, what strikes me is its complex attitude to country music itself. Nashville is of course the home of country, the home of the Grand Ole Opry; the music is not really ironised in this film, not mocked, even when the singers are at their most narcissistic and self-serving and when the songs are at their cheesiest – especially Hamilton’s toe-curling For the Sake of the Children, a mawkish song from a man to his mistress, piously saying he has to return to his marriage. The music, playing almost continuously, is the glue that holds the movie together. It may sound schmaltzy, but the city-slickers deriding it sound worse.

This is Gerald Ford’s America, on the verge of the bicentennial in 1976 … an event everyone hopes will heal the agonies of Watergate. An independent presidential candidate is coming to Nashville, hoping to promote his new ideas: taxing churches, abolishing the electoral college, removing lawyers from government. But for some Kennedy lovers present, the final dismissal of Nixon just brings back unhappy memories of how Nixon actually won against Kennedy in Tennessee in 1960, and the Kennedy motif is an unhappy omen.

So too is a public fainting fit suffered by the local country star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who has perhaps intuited the hysteria and anxiety in the air. Allen Garfield is great as her boorish husband-slash-manager Barnett. Geraldine Chaplin is insufferably patronising British journalist Opal, who has a fling with handsome singer Tom (Keith Carradine), who is also having an affair with Linnea (a superb Lily Tomlin), with whom Wade (Robert DoQui) is poignantly in love. Linnea is an unsatisfied married woman with hearing-impaired children whose sleazy husband Delbert (Ned Beatty) is working with visiting TV producer John Triplette (Michael Murphy) to set up a lucrative media-political deal. All these – and many more – characters’ lives crisscross, their dialogue overlapping in the middle-distance sound design while the candidate’s megaphone-van trundles around the city, blaring its choric political commentary, an ambient effect rather like the tannoy announcements in M*A*S*H.

The film’s most brutal moment is the treatment of Sueleen Gay, the waitress and tone-deaf wannabe country star played by Gwen Welles, who is tricked by the unspeakable Delbert and Triplette into appearing on stage, purely because they want her to do a striptease for the braying good ol’ boys present. Poor Sueleen thinks they wanted to hear her sing. It’s an ugly moment of abuse and, perhaps tellingly, the band switch from wholesome country to traditional burlesque music for this humiliation.

Altman’s control of this sprawling material is wonderful – though Tewkesbury’s screenwriting achievement should not be forgotten. This is the heart of the troubled mid-70s American zeitgeist: angry, sentimental, violent, comic, afraid.

• Nashville is released on 25 June in cinemas.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Robert Altman’s 20 best films – ranked!
From The Long Goodbye to Short Cuts, Altman’s innovative movies have influenced a generation of film-makers. With the re-release of Nashville and a BFI tribute, we rank the work of one of America’s greatest directors

Ryan Gilbey

17, Jun, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘The enemy is the audience’: Robert Altman’s The Player at 30
The director’s razor-sharp Hollywood satire offered up a horribly prescient look at an industry turning away from creativity and toward commercialism

Noah Gittell

10, Apr, 2022 @6:07 AM

Article image
‘Odd, free and uninhibited’: Karen Black, Hollywood’s great singer-actor
She worked with Jack Nicholson, Robert Altman and more – and had a sideline in spectral, beautiful songwriting. As her lost songs are released, those close to Karen Black remember her

Andrew Male

19, Jul, 2021 @11:43 AM

Article image
Ned Beatty: the good ol’ boy who made playing the ordinary guy look easy
From his breakthrough in Deliverance to a memorable turn in Toy Story 3, the authenticity of Beatty’s middleman gone bad made him the perfect co-star – and often stole the show

Peter Bradshaw

14, Jun, 2021 @11:20 AM

Article image
George Segal: a defining face of 1970s Hollywood with a late-career resurgence
The romcom player appeared opposite everyone from Barbra Streisand to Glenda Jackson before almost disappearing from screens. But a late-career turn on TV brought new admirers

Peter Bradshaw

24, Mar, 2021 @12:43 PM

Article image
I Saw the Light review – Tom Hiddleston croons a country curiosity
The British actor does a fine, intelligent turn as the troubled singer Hank Williams, but this baggy biopic never really finds its shape

Peter Bradshaw

05, May, 2016 @9:45 PM

Article image
Wild Rose review – Jessie Buckley sparkles as an ex-con country singer
In this entertaining if sentimental tale co-starring Julie Walters, a young Glaswegian dreams of becoming a star in Nashville

Peter Bradshaw

10, Apr, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Veteran actor Fred Ward, star of The Right Stuff and Tremors, dies aged 79
The character actor was part of the ensemble casts of Robert Altman’s films Short Cuts and The Player, and had a career in film and television that spanned five decades

Andrew Pulver

13, May, 2022 @3:59 PM

Article image
Country Strong – review
Gwyneth Paltrow's country-music movie is a stomach-churningly schmaltzy mess

Peter Bradshaw

24, Mar, 2011 @10:00 PM

Article image
9 to 5 review – Dolly Parton's quietly radical office revenge satire
Thirty-eight years on, this tale of misogyny, kidnap and rattling typewriters is a boldly progressive piece of film-making

Peter Bradshaw

15, Nov, 2018 @8:00 AM