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Nashville: A Musical Portrait of America in the 1970s

By Emma-Rose Partin | 10/10/17 12:56pm
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Photo by Criterion Production

Director, screenwriter, and producer Robert Altman’s auteur style can be described as meticulously laid out chaos, with intertwining narratives built to display webs of relationships. Altman applied his vision to a film revolving around about 25 characters set in Nashville, Tennessee which was released on June 11, 1975. 

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws debuted nine days later, and after it chomped the box offices and swam its way to becoming the first American summer “blockbuster,” Nashville’s legacy may be consequentially downplayed. Nashville is a movie everyone should watch because it depicts America as a disjointed group of flawed individuals doing their best to achieve success and fulfillment, and I think that is reminiscent of America today.

One prominent character, Barbara Jean, is a country sweetheart who embodies the highest standard of femininity and stardom that a city like Nashville holds. Her character arch functions as a critique of the normalization of the abuse of celebrities in American pop culture, since sometimes their jobs are unnecessarily grueling or free of choice. 

Another character named Tom depicts a suave guitar-playing bachelor who treats women with such disdain that the actor, Keith Carradine, vividly recalls hating the character. Tom’s role in the film is to show us a portrait of a man who hates himself, via the actor that can’t bear to be as cruel as he acts. One partner of Tom’s, Linnea Reese, is the nurturing mother of two deaf children who grapples with adultery. She is a complex female protagonist with significant feminist implications in her part of the story. Sueleen Gay, an optimistic diner waitress with high hopes and little talent, tries to make it big in Nashville, only to be exploited by the dark side of the entertainment industry.

Few are spared from Altman’s magnifying glass as he calls attention to the differences in our experiences and ultimately wants his audience to maintain the relationships they forge. Musical performances play a major role in the narrative of the film, as relationships are born, changed, or ended in songs sung on stages. Themes about politics, uncertainty, tradition vs. innovation, and individualism vs. civilization permeate the movie and create a shared reality that an American in 2017 could relate to. 

The ending of the movie includes a scene so controversial that when John Lennon was shot and killed, a reporter asked the following of Nashville’s director: “Do you feel responsible?” One this is for sure: Altman is responsible for creating a movie that earnestly seeks to unify Americans around the special chaos of each of our lives.