I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1963 to 1968. Nashville meant country music, but if you read in the histories of the civil rights movement, you’d know that many of the major advances were led by students from Fisk, the historically black college in Nashville. The “sixties” might be said to have started when people from Nashville rode on the buses in the first Freedom Rides. Even though I participated only in a few pickets, I was picketing a segregated lunch counter when John Kennedy was assassinated. Seven years later, in 1975, Robert Altman, the director, released a movie, Nashville, and it confused everybody at first, because the city presented an unclear image—music, civil rights, religion, civil disobedience, education, government.
Some people thought it was a movie about the country music industry. A satire, perhaps, which revolved around events in Nashville during the last weekend before a (fictional) Tennessee primary and ended with a political assassination on the steps of a concrete replica of the Parthenon in a Nashville park, something exposing the fraud and vulgarity of the music industry. Country music singers, political operatives, managers of singers, the children of singers, people who want to be singers, audience members at the Grand Ole Opry were all drawn to Nashville by the music and by the celebrity of country music stars. Nashville is a satire on the music scene, but Altman, who is operating at the height of his powers, is interested in something bigger, something deeper, something more inescapably American.
The US flag, which is omnipresent throughout the movie, is a hint to the point of this movie, which was made between 1973 and 1975, the last four or five years of the Vietnam War. In the final scene of the movie, a gigantic American flag hangs on the columns of the Parthenon, some songs are sung, someone is shot, another song is sung, and the movie is over, while a breeze causes the giant flag to undulate. This movie opens with a forest of flags—it might as well be the quadrennial convention of a political party—and the screen says, “WELCOME TO NASHVILLE.”
One of the major characters is “L.A. Joan” who has no connection to the country music scene except that she lusts after every male who crosses the screen. Three characters are folk/rock singers, “Tom, Mary, and Bill,” in town for the weekend to record an album, and soon we discover that another major character, a “Mr. Green,” lost a son in World War II. “Lady Pearl” wants no part of politics. The last time she committed, she says, was “the Kennedy brothers.” Lady Pearl drinks too much, and most of the times we see her, she is lamenting the death of John and Bobby. A soldier, PFC Glenn Kelly, spends the movie in his Army uniform, suffering abuse from the leftist anti-war types (“How many kids did you kill today?”), and possibly another soldier, or maybe a Weatherman, who seems to suffer from post traumatic stress disease. The flags in this movie are one hint. The minor characters, like the grieving, weeping Lady Pearl, or one of the soldiers, are another. Something terrible has happened to America.
There are said to be twenty-four major characters in Nashville. They came together because they were all on the highway into Nashville from the airport and they all crashed into each other in a giant pileup on the interstate. Some of them—“This is Opal, from the BBC” (played by Geraldine Chaplin)—you hate so much that you love them, and with others—“If you see him, don’t tell him you saw me” (played by Barbara Harris)—you revel in their quirky stupidities. But as you become more familiar with the movie, you begin to recognize what they have in common. From the beginning, the characters are all on the make. In different ways, they are out to make it, to get rich, to get power, sex, recognition, votes, an audience.
These are American concerns. Yet “making it” leads to the desolation of the opening scenes with Haven Hamilton, the most powerful of the Music City players in the movie, whose songs are devoid of feeling, and powerless to draw the audience to him. He’s made it, he’s powerful, and every time he speaks or sings, people listen because he’s abusive if they don’t, but he’s dead inside, and it’s impossible for him to tell the truth. (Hamilton to Frog, the keyboard player: “And get a haircut. You don’t belong in Nashville.”) Whatever people have, they long for something else, different, better, something that will fill the void, and there’s nobody in Nashville who can get it for them. Not the church, and not the political system.
It begins to be clear that the characters are all going to gather at the Parthenon for a political rally. Everybody we’ve met in this movie will be there. But it is already clear that this source of a cure for the disease that afflicts America—that is, politics—is impotent. A soundtrack of the movie would have the droning voice of the national candidate for the “Replacement Party,” who has nothing to say but a series of non sequiturs. “When it costs you more to buy a car than it cost Columbus to come to America, that’s politics.” The only project that the political types in this movie actually pull off is a stag party, a “Smoker,” for a rag-tag collection of political donors with a striptease by a resistant young woman who wants to be a star. Religion works sometimes. One of the sequences, for a Sunday morning, shows choirs in several churches singing a lovely version of Amazing Grace, but even religion is unable to cure what’s wrong. Some of the most corrupted characters in Nashville are the same ones demurely singing Sunday morning’s version of Amazing Grace. It’s a savage scene, and the target is not the failure of religion to cure the materialism of Nashville’s culture, it is how corrupt America is and how America’s great institutions have failed it. Mr. Green leaves his wife’s funeral—abandons the solace of religion—to pursue revenge, because he is unable to control his niece from California, who is only interested in sex.
Which brings us to the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park and the giant, undulating flag of the United States. Barbara Jean the queen of country music, sings “My Idaho Home,” a lovely sentimental ballad about someone’s childhood, but what’s clear to everyone is that Barbara Jean is an emotional wreck, a child/woman unable to live her own life and whose husband Barnett runs it for her. “I’ve been running your life for a long time.” And then the thing that we have been dreading since the beginning of the movie, because we have known this movie was about America, and in America in 1973, we shoot those who have made it, the young man that we’re sure has PTSD, pulls out a gun, aims it, and shoots Barbara Jean. She falls on the stage under the giant undulating flag, her white dress spattered with her own blood, the bouquet of white flowers Haven Hamilton has just given her scattered around the stage.
I haven’t seen this movie in years. Then it was on cable last Thursday, and I watched it, and I thought at first, Jesus, This is about us. We are living through a time of violence and huge and painful change. It’s like we’re living through the end of the sixties, when the whole country turned to the right .
I do think this country is dangerously close to the kind of emotional climate that produces assassinations. But this movie doesn’t address the future so much as it gets the present exactly right—greed for money, for power, for sex, and the failure of politics to make our lives better, the failure of religion. The only human quality that seems to survive the acrid atmosphere of Altman’s America is the deep concentration of the face of Linnea Reese (played by Lily Tomlin) as she watches her children, who are deaf, as they sign to her what they have done today. Love and respect between humans, in this movie, are shown in fleeting moments, and the love her children feel for her, shown in their faces, is not enough to keep her from being receptive to a wolf on the prowl. Like everyone else in Nashville, Linnea is dissatisfied with her life.
The waving flags, the pumping music, the bright primary colors, it’s all meretricious in Nashville. The real problems are elsewhere and can submit only to other solutions.
Perhaps the only successful means of answering the floodtide of unmet needs in Nashville is what we see happening in the final moments of the movie. Barbara Jean lies bleeding on the stage, the flag undulating above her, Haven Hamilton, the microphone in his hand, saying, “This ain’t Dallas, this is Nashville,” and he says, “Sing, somebody, sing.” Then he sticks out the hand that holds the microphone—it’s his left hand—and it goes beyond the right edge of the screen for a moment. When the camera catches up with Hamilton’s movements, we see the person who was given the microphone. It’s “Albuquerque,” whose husband calls her Winifred, the woman who has come to Nashville to be a star. At that moment, there were two women standing within arm’s length of each other, both determined to be a star, and yet Hamilton, handing the microphone off to somebody, who was supposed to sing, somebody, sing!, without knowing either of these women, handed it off to this one, the one called “Albuquerque,” who, even though she wanted to be a star, didn’t really know what to do with the microphone. She begins to sing the song that Tom had sung earlier, in the tavern, and, on tape, while he was screwing, serially, Linnea and L.A.Joan, Opal “from the BBC,” Mary from the trio. “Well, you may say, that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.” At first Albuquerque is hesitant and isn’t in touch with the crowd, but then she gets in touch with what she’s doing, and begins to sing with more power, and more sense of rhythm, and then Linnea’s gospel choir joins her (without Linnea), and the crowd surrounding the stage, and then Albuquerque gets control of what she’s doing, lifts her voice, finds the thythm, gets the audience to sing with her, and we discover—My God, this woman’s got a voice!—, and becomes a star.