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Soundtracking: Nashville

by Chris Feil

We don’t really think of Robert Altman’s Nashville as a musical. To be fair, it both is and it isn’t. As is trademark for the director, the film is focused on character first to reveal its themes, exposing a distinctly American disposition both in its specific social strata and in the grander national sense. But Nashville isn’t always interested in doing so through song. Even taking place in the country music world, music feels like an equal contributor to Altman’s portraiture as any of the ensemble members.

Viewers wanting Altman to languor in the thematic sway of a musical’s tunes will always have A Prairie Home Companion. Instead here he upends genre traditions much as he does general narrative ones. Musicals are a genre that even at its best can still feel the least spontaneous, and spontaneity is a definitive Altman trait...

Instead everything around the music seems to be serving what Altman is trying to achieve rather than underline it - it’s essential to the world he creates, but as inconsequential to the personal and political of that world as it perhaps is to Altman.

One of the grimmer business aspects of the country music scene (and by extension, the American machine) Altman depicts is its divorce from the actual artist as individual. We bear harshest witness to this with Ronee Blakley’s Barbara Jean. She’s unwell and unadjusted, shoved onto the stage to quickly hostile crowd, with the scene led by the tension of her fragility and the gaze of her eventual killer. We remember the ensuing breakdown for Blakley’s brilliant turn and the cruelty of how this expected end represents America’s capitalistic indifference to an individual’s well-being. But do we remember the songs she sings? Are we even supposed to?

Even the film’s classic, indelible Oscar-winning song “I’m Easy” is striking for what happens while the song occurs rather than what the song itself is illuminating. The crowd, especially the women stare on as Keith Carradine embodies relaxed sexual cool. It’s a series of eyefuckings in closeup, but it’s Lily Tomlin’s Linnea that he locks eyes with. Altman alternately captures Linnea from afar, pulling into her face in the crowd to show that her attraction reaches something deeper and more spiritually longing than just loins. It’s edited with a musical rhythm, mounting into a breathless intensity grounded by Carradine’s steadiness. But turn off the sound, and Altman is still the one telling the story.

The film’s most musically-led sequence is its finale, Barbara Harris leading the rally crowd with “It Don’t Worry Me”. The song begins as an act of desperation, crowd control after a gunman has shot Barbara Jean. It’s a rousing bluegrass, gospel number, the kind of catchy refrain easy to fall into. The crowd naturally follows suit. As the gatherers quickly forget what they’ve just witnessed for the sake of warm group feeling and the song repeats its lyrics of indifference, we’re struck by a vision of American disconnection at its political and social core.

Hardly the kind of cheerful finale that musicals are typically accustomed, Altman naturally innovates and leaves us with something unsettling.

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (13)

“We don’t really think of NASHVILLE as a musical.”

Agree to disagree. I primarily think of NASHVILLE as a musical. IIRC, Altman had most of the actors write the songs for their characters. To me, this suggests a thematic importance within the script. And even if you go in not knowing this specific fact, I find it evident throughout if you scan the lyrical content.

True, Ronee Blakley wrote her songs as a singer-songwriter prior to being cast as Barbara Jean, but they sync up beautifully with her character’s relationships to her husband/the media/the public. And they fill in backstory while drawing parallels between characters who never really cross paths. BJ getting lost in a hymn ties her to Linnea’s devout faith, seen in the early moment of her catching the Holy Ghost while flanked by a gospel choir.

And that’s not even getting to Haven Hamilton’s laughably jingoistic opening tune that says everything you need to know about the man in the first 10 minutes. As for Keith Carradine’s Oscar-winning song, I find “I’m Easy” (the title itself a winking, sexual self-critique, perhaps?) alluringly pretty but suspicious in its charisma - much like the handsome folk icon himself.

One could argue “It Don’t Worry Me” is a similarly cyncial song of his that morphs into an anthem of perseverance in the face of unfathomable evil at the end thanks to Barbara Harris’s brilliant performance. Her character’s seizing a moment, sure, but I don’t doubt the feeling behind that woman’s belting for one second. I suppose it all comes down to whether you think the movie is more hopeful than cynical or vice versa. I’ll admit I haven’t researched Altman’s intentions because I want to preserve my original experience.

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEli

Thank you Chris, I feel as this article had been written personally for me. I love "Nashville", not only did I see the film several times when it was in the theatre, I actually bought that album.

Music underlays the themes of the film, and does reveal the characters, but Nashville is not a classic musical. However when Barbara Harris sways gently before the crowd willing them to sing along with "It Don't Worry Me" it has brilliant musical moments.
It's a subversive musical, how about that?

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

My favorite film of all time! As much I listen to the soundtrack, I was always disappointed that it only has a handful of songs.

Then, about 15 years ago, I discovered that Vancouver BC queer country/folk musician Carolyn Mark was mounting a staged production of the songs and even did a CD of the event--and it had everything (done by local musicians, of course). It is a lot of fun.

It is still available to purchase or stream on line for anyone who is interested.

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

one of my all time favourite films. One of my favourite only in NYC experiences was attending a cabaret show devoted to this album where they perfromed many of the most famous tracks. It was totally heaven.

July 3, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think we're supposed to remember the songs Barbara Jean sings - they tell her life story!

This is my #1 film, and I watch it every few years. It always tells me something different depending on the political climate. My most recent viewing, I saw a lot of similarities between Hal Philip Walkers slogan machine and Bernie Sanders.

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

My God the the song Dues just hit me the first time I saw this movie. She is doing so much vocally and physically. That is how you act while singing.

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G

LadyEdith - yes! "Subversive musical" is pretty much a perfect description.

I've only ever seen this movie once (which I must remedy), but so much of it has remained seared indelibly into my memory, especially Lily Tomlin's face during the seduction scene and "It Don't Worry Me," which has gotta be one of the all-time greatest final scenes in film history.

I'd also forgotten what a hottie Keith Carradine was. He's still quite attractive for an older guy (he plays the U.S. president - very credibly, I might add - on "Madam Secretary"), but dayyum.

(Also, I think I've said this before, but I love this series, Chris!)

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

Nashville is movie heaven. One of my Desert Island picks for sure.

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Definitely a true American classic.

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I don't know if we're "supposed" to remember what Barbara Jean sings, but Dues is the song I could remember the most once the movie was over the first time I saw it. Music-wise, it's the best song in the movie and one of the best musical moments in film for how it ties everything together in this wonderful film - no doubt one of the best American movies ever made. It's very eerie to watch this performance separately and see how her killer deeply connects with her (it makes me wonder if he had shot her right there were the Vietnam's vet not there). I watch this on youtube every other month or so. What a vulnerable performance Blakley's is. She feels the song with so much honesty and simplicity it's heartbreaking, especially preceding her on-stage breakdown.

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJared

I paused my listen to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" to watch these clips, that's how much I love/respect Chris Feil's writing in this series.

July 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

One of if not my favorite films of all time. When Barbara Harris picks up the microphone at the end and we see her take charge with her song was such a thrilling surprise as throughout the film we are led to believe she has little talent. It seems to be a microcosm of all America.

July 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDO

I agree with everyone who’s shouted out Dues as an especially memorable song - I love everything Barbara Jean sings in this movie. I’m also really struck by both of Haven Hamilton’s songs, with their ridiculous lyrics and his sincerity in performing them. Love love love this write-up, which does justice to one of the best movies ever made, and maybe my favorite article for this series. Thanks Chris!

July 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNick T

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