I first fell in love with Robert Altman a couple of years before he died. He made a quiet masterpiece that I ate up like a mountain of chocolate (I love chocolate!!!) entitled Gosford Park. I rented the film over and over again so I could watch Helen Mirren lay down the law, Maggie Smith chew on scenery like only Maggie can do (case in point the most amazing tv series on right now: Downton Abbey), and Clive Owen play a quiet young man. The exchanges between the upper classes and the lower classes were as cutting as they were charming. The dose of cinematic history was something I latched onto with the excitement that only a young cinephile can. (Before this film I had no idea what and who Charlie Chan was. Now I know. Now I know.) The sets were wonderful, the characters were charming and well-rounded and you felt for each one of them. Since watching Gosford Park I have delved into other Altman films but I haven’t really done a serious study of him. I think it was mainly because those other films of his that I watched were very underwhelming. A Prairie Home Companion was cute but that was all. Short Cuts I found cold and annoying. The Long Goodbye was hip, but intellectually not fulfilling. I just didn’t get why people thought Altman was such an amazing director. Then I watched Nashville.
Nashville is about many things, the least of which is country music. The film intertwines several story lines about so many rich characters that they could each have their own film. There is an aging earnest country superstar with the predilection for white suits, a British outsider reporter who is just doesn’t fit in and is quite annoying, a rock star god who uses women in order to feel something, but never really does, a young country singer who tours too much, sings too much, and is on the verge of a mental breakdown, a middle age housewife with two deaf kids dying to get out of her marriage, a promoter who will try to manipulate everyone he sees into voting for this one political candidate and therefore make buckets of money, and there is an older man who just wants his flighty niece to see his dying wife one last time. Each character has a simple arc that weaves in and out of each other’s lives, but it never feels forced. Through these characters Altman explores the cult of celebrity, sexism, racism, political manipulation, political motivations, the music industry and power without coming to a definite answer to them.
In an interview with him on the disc he explains that although this film is not considered a musical, it actually is. I find that interesting. What defines a musical? Does have to have a simple story line so that it can showcase the music without being too messy? Does it have to originate on Broadway? Can it showcase popular music and not just “show tunes?” This film contains many numbers performed in real-time by the actors that populate the story lines. These numbers serve as a window into the characters’ psyche just as much as the actions they do when they are not stage. So why isn’t this a musical? I think it might be too complicated to be a musical. A musical is usually about a simple concept that involves musical numbers in order to drive it to a satisfactory ending. Think about West Side Story, Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Rent, Hello Dolly!, or any other musical that comes to mind. You can sum up what they are about in one very short sentence, sometimes even one word. This does not make them bad, it just makes it a very easy genre. Nashville is hard to sum up in one sentence. It is about so much, involves so many things that cannot be expressed easily in song, that many people (including me) do not see it as a musical even though on the surface it has all the properties of a musical.
Altman may become a hit or miss director for me. When he hits I will get a film that I can watch over and over again and enjoy it every time. Nashville is the definition of an effective film. It has enjoyable complex characters, a unique premise, and intellectual ideas that will leave me thinking about them once the film is over. And his ending will make you think not just about celebrity but about what it had an effect on just five short year later with John Lennon. That is all I am going to say about the ending. Do not hound me about it.