There’s no way you could go to a cinema in the 21st-century and see a film as eclectic as Nashville. Robert Altman’s much-loved American epic returns to cinemas this month, as part of the BFI’s American Outsider series. Whether you’re familiar with Altman’s work or not, Nashville is utterly worth watching – for its spellbinding cast, perfect balance of chaos, and eerily prescient messages, that hold up today.
It’s no surprise to learn that Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece Magnolia was heavily inspired by Altman’s work on Nashville. Both films have astoundingly large casts, a constantly simmering pace, and give its actors the space to breathe and improvise. In Nashville, they’re all somehow centred around the Replacement Party, their lead candidate Hal Phillip Walker, and the array of people either supporting him, or ready to take him down. Our first introduction is to Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a slightly washed-up country star at the heart of Walker’s campaign.
From there, we meet Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), the next big thing in country, her husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), and everything in between. From a budding singer with a lack of discernible talent, to a two-timing musician, to Jeff Golblum riding a tricycle, Nashville is a constant introduction to new characters, and the layers and nuances of their lives. You’ll feel like the ultimate fly on the wall, as the 160-minute run-time bubbles along with character drama, plenty of musical numbers, and unmatched directorial swagger.
What makes Nashville so special is how authentic and ambitious the filmmaking is. Without a single action scene or grand set piece, it’s the purest definition of an epic, capturing this period in time—Vietnam insecurities, the growing Southern culture, and political scepticism—like lightning in a bottle. Its message is inadvertently relevant today, as Walker’s campaign based on celebrity endorsement, gossip and underhand political tactics will remind everyone of a certain Commander-in-Chief now thankfully out of office. The writing is top-notch here, with the plot unravelling with surgical precision – even more impressive as Altman famously encouraged his cast to improvise as much as they wanted. It’s testament to a director that knows exactly what his vision for the film is, but trusts his colleagues to flesh it out using their remarkable talent, too.
There’s so many interesting sub-plots here that it’s hard to even pick one out to highlight. You’ll see love triangles and affairs – mainly spearheaded by the shady but undeniably sleek Tom (Keith Carradine) – and even an assassination attempt, but Altman always keeps the audience like putty in his hands. Another particular highlight is Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an in-your-face BBC journalist whose relentless hunt for a scoop leads her across the state, and into the front-line of several big moments. That’s all without touching on the Oscar-winning music, that keeps the film bubbling along with authentic country songs that add to the nostalgic aura the film now holds.
It’s hard to talk about a film as sprawling and ambitious as Nashville without wittering on about every nuance of its delightfully engaging plot. It’s the perfect showcase for the profound impact a strong directorial vision can have on a film, and it’s best seen without any knowledge at all – diving head-first into the dizzying world Altman creates. There’s everything from a pastiche on celebrities in politics to the predatory masculinity of the music industry, and not many filmmakers could spin so many plates with this level of care and precision. They really don’t make them like this anymore, and it’s remarkable how almost half a century later, Nashville still absolutely glimmers.
Nashville is showing at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas UK-wide from June 25 2021.