Nashville (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray + DVD]
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This cornerstone of 1970s American moviemaking from Robert Altman (Short Cuts) is a panoramic view of the country’s political and entertainment landscapes, set in the nation’s music capital. Nashville weaves the stories of twenty-four characters—from country star to wannabe to reporter to waitress—into a cinematic tapestry that is equal parts comedy, tragedy, and musical. Many members of the astonishing cast wrote and performed their own songs live on location, which lends another layer to the film’s quirky authenticity. Altman’s ability to get to the heart of American life via its eccentric byways was never put to better use than in this grand, rollicking triumph, which barrels forward to an unforgettable conclusion. DUAL-FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES • New 2K digital film restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray • Audio commentary featuring director Robert Altman • New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls, and Lily Tomlin, assistant director Alan Rudolph, and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury • Archival interviews with Altman • Behind-the-scenes footage • Demos of Carradine singing his songs from the film • Trailer • One Blu-ray and two DVDs, with all format available in both editions • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Molly Haskell
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It was the summer of 1975, and the buzz was all about two films: "Jaws" and "Nashville." The former was an entertaining afternoon at the movies; the latter, which delivered disappointing numbers at the box office, was an experience that left me shaken for days after. I returned to "live" in this cinematic Nashville two additional times within the first two weeks of the film's opening in Boston. Each time was more instructive, revealing critical details of the film that I had missed and teaching me more about the ethos of the disco-crazed / country-western American culture of the 1970s.
Today's younger audiences are unlikely to recognize themselves in Altman's 1975 microcosmic criticism of life. In fact, the characters' dialog and and dress are likely to strike many of today's viewers as almost "cartoonish." But as the former owner of several light-colored leisure suits with flared pants legs, I can attest that the film is dead accurate in its portrayal of the era, its style and tastes. Nashville was the new "Hollywood" of America, with hundreds of wannabe recording stars coming to this Mecca every day--and just as many leaving disillusioned. Music had completely severed its ties to the "Great American Songbook" of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers. Frank Sinatra had gone into retirement and simply stopped making records (before coming back after a wise decision to focus exclusively on "live" concerts). But for most fans of the America's new popular music, there was no longer a separation between the professional composer and the performer. Everyone was a potential composer-performer, with reductive or prosaic tunes like "Little Green Apples" and "Gentle on My Mind" becoming the new chartbusters while shows like "Hee Haw," "Glen Campbell Hour," and "Sonny and Cher" were the prime-time favorites of America's television viewers.
Younger viewers of the film simply must try not to get hung up on the "period piece" aspects of the film and be open to the film's undeniable resonance with today's "Nashville mentality"--a culture with many "proud Tea-Party" Americans; Fox News "addicts," Glenn Beck/Ted Nugent followers; "hillbilly-themed" shows on cable TV; a fixation on cars and guns; a right-wing suspicion of, and political bias against, "the government." And, as if further proof were needed of the "rightness" of Altman's vision, country music (a multi-billion dollar industry) is now so prevalent in virtually ALL popular music that we scarcely take note of it. A pessimist might observe that as a society we've moved too deep in Plato's allegorical "cave" (configured like a modern day movie theater) to see the light of day. Altman's camera, however, will suggest otherwise in the film's suddenly calm and quiet, reflective yet "prospective," final shot (the most memorable example of Altman's long takes with an uninterrupted moving camera).
Almost 40 years later, Altman's vision has not simply "proven out," but it remains equally relevant to our own lives and future. The stunning ending of "Nashville" at the New World's Parthenon (an exact replica were it made of marble instead of cement) must still provoke the viewer to question the meaning--of being an American; of celebrity worship and the American Dream; of attachment to ephemeral machines like the automobile; of the "democratization" of music-making; of our ephemeral attachments to celebrities and inattention to causes like the plight of the poor; of the narcissism that is the basis of adulterous "relationships"; of a populace that hears less than the deaf children of Lily Tomlin's character and that lacks, above all, self-reflection much less "vision."
[Warning: This paragraph contains a "spoiler"]: Altman's film is, in sum, a criticism of the unexamined life, a stinging slap in the face of those who base their likes and dislikes, or their very identity, on slogans and bumperstickers, on status and power, on abundant rather than "sufficient" wealth, on superficial pleasures and the "denial of death." Kenny, the loner with the violin case who is intermittently shown enjoying his personal adventure away from his mother in tinsel town, does not come to the political rally at the Parthenon to assassinate the country music diva, Barbara Jean, the country queen so unforgettably played by Ronee Blakey. His shooting of her is an impulsive act, motivated by a Freudian desire to destroy the maternal Oedipal ties that have thwarted his growth. Ironically, he may be the most thoughtful, introspective character in the entire film.
But there are no villains. The poignant final tilt shot of a camera moving from the mayhem on stage up to the American flag and from there to the unobstructed skies is a poignant reminder of the genuine freedom that, though elusive, is still there for the people of the United States of America, despite the narrow-minded self-interest and the thoughtless pettiness that prevent us from realizing the dream of a harmonious melting pot in which each individual is equally respected for his potential but also for his unique character and contribution.
Robert Altman was, at his best, a "critic" and a "visionary," and he was also a gifted but radically independent filmmaker who refused to be guided by either money or celebrity. If he was underrappreciated by movie-goers despite his prolific legacy, it's because he refused "to tell stories" or to entrust his message to a familiar "star." Rather, he used the medium to provide us with all of the material needed to create stories thaat would otherwise be too big and urgent to fit into the usual formulaic scripts use by honored, more famous and wealthy, contemporaries like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola. All of them, worthy "story-tellers." By contrast, Altman was a "maker see." He shows us Nashville's actual "life"--not a frozen, documentary-like a tabloid imitation--but a dynamic, vital, unfolding moment in time that connects with our own. Yet ultimately he leaves it to the viewer to put these rich and fruitful, provocative and "meaning-full," pieces together until, along with a narrative that makes sense, we experience an "epiphany" about our own place in the stories within Altman's brilliant images and scenes.
The foregoing is merely a beginning attempt at an introduction to Robert Altman and, more importantly, a guide through "Nashville." The film references three major areas of American experience--the political, religious, and entertainment worlds. It includes the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, the military and the anti-social. Humor abounds in the film, yet Altman seems to have sympathy for all of his 20+ characters. No one can watch the film without taking away an indelible moment, whether it be Geraldine Chaplin's meditation on rusty old cars in an auto graveyard or Ronee Blakey's deeply affecting performance of the country song-waltz "Dues" (uncredited in the present Blu Ray packaging), just prior to her break-down on stage. And for some of us the film has become so completely lodged in consciousness that it seems to replay itself practically every day of our lives.
If I had to settle on one film in my collection, it would still be "Nashville," which has a further and deeper-reaching resonance, at least for this viewer, than any other film of any nationality. At the same time, nothing can replace the experience of viewing it in a large theater in 1975--not even a print superior to the present one. Curiously, the makers have included the ordinary DVD version that preceded this Blu Ray edition, for a total of 3 discs. The Blu Ray is less grainy than the DVD version and the sound is clearer (always a consideration because of Altman's frequent use of multiple, overlapping dialog). Although the film should be seen in its original ratio, I can't help myself: I keep zooming to a ratio that fills my screen, the better to see my favorite moments and characters. (Why Ronee Blakey didn't become a huge star after a stunning performance captured by Altman's enrapt, steady camera still eludes me.) Perhaps I finally have sufficient reason to look into one of those 50"-60" mammoth TV sets with 5:1 surround sound. That's probably what the residents of "Nashville" would do. (Mindful of the possible offense to the citizens of Nashvile that was registered by film reviewers like Rex Reed, I use quote marks to clarify that my comments are of Altman's cinematic "representation," or "interpretation" of Nashville and not of the proud city itself.)
Days, and now decades, after viewing this film, other spectators have dismissed it as "confusing," "weird," "patronizing" more often than they've agreed with me about the film's power, universal imaginative vision, and permanent hold. But I'll continue to defend the movie, which even now leaves chills and conflicting but very real emotions about life in America in the 21st century. Most importantly, it's movie-making at its extemporaneous, least-contrived, most candid and honest best. Even as Hollywood continues to grind out the same cookie-cutter scripts with a twist or two (I'm just as happy not to have met "The Fockers," and only Robin Williams' performance in Altman's "Pop-Eye" helps make up for the offensive "Patch Adams"), "Nashville" is a reminder of one of cinema's most shining moments. It's also a challenge to any young talent who is not overcome by the smell of money to think like this deceptively gentle and soft-spoken, seemingly casual man who was also a radical, courageous filmmaker, a creative artist not afraid to "hold up the mirror" to the world as he saw it. In spite of a few bombs (e.g. "Pret-a-Porter," a sophomoric, overstated attempt to satirize the world of fashion), Altman was the medium's Shakespeare, realizing the potential of film not merely to entertain but to enable us, above all, "to see." God bless Robert Altman.
CODA: As a musician, I'm especially attentive to film scores. Welles' "Citizen Kane" and, above all, Hitchock's "Vertigo" would not register such profound impacts upon the viewer without the scores provided by Bernard Herrmann. "Nashville," on the other hand, is a film without a traditional score, so true to its times that it relies solely upon "source music," or the characters themselves to provide the film's score. The music comes from both musicians and non-musician characters in the film, gradually rising to the level of a collective chorus being sung by the people themselves. It expresses their heartaches and dreams, their disappointments and yearnings, their fears and the lies they tell themselves in order to cope. And the music is as accessible as it is omnipresent, so contagious and insistent that we find ourselves sharing in its ownership, like Henry Gibson's character becoming caught up in the melodic strains that urge us, as a community of good Americans, simply, to "Keep A-Goin'."
Yet Altman's challenge to the viewer is not to allow these intoxicating strains to cloud judgment concerning complex problems that simply can't be solved by the lyrics of a country song or any other form of avoidance and denial:
"It don't worry me; / It don't worry me.
"You may say that I ain't free, / But it don't worry me."
Spectators who have been fully engaged by the film's chronology (a visit of only 3 days, which heightens the film's immediacy) are, at least initially, likely to join the people of Nashville in their song, carried along by the musical strains without a thought to the words. The lyrics of this "choral finale," sung at the replica of the Greek Parthenon, would seem to fit perfectly in a modernist poem like T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" or the widely-taught "The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock," in which the monologist offers a mock-heroic challenge--"Let us go ... to an overwhelming question... Let us make a visit...Oh, do not ask what is it." Prufrock just as quickly backs down, dodging "all" questions, lamenting that "the mermaids will not sing to me." The people of Nashville at least "Keep A'Goin'" but with little thought to their destination. As spectators, we're left to ask the tough questions even as we leave the film with the fading strains of music still ringing in our minds. The present edition includes legendary film critic Pauline Kael's insightful review of "Nashville," which she entitles "America Singing." Enduring art--whether jazz, poetry, or film--is like music, or a melody that never wears out its welcome and never ceases to invite our participation. In that respect, "Nashville" rises to the level of timeless lyric art.
Criterion is the best video label in the U.S., and buying/owning their disks is my biggest vice (since I periodically ignore my bank account to do so). The fact that Criterion has chosen NASHVILLE is both fitting and exciting news. It's a natural for their collection. I'll be one of the first on line to buy it, and am looking forward to the bonus materials as well.
I note with strong interest that NASHVILLE, along with a couple of other releases coming in December, will be released in dual-format DVD and Blu-Ray editions -- a change in policy at Criterion. Although it raises the price point a bit, I think it's a good idea for someone like me who doesn't have a Blu-Ray player but is always just about to buy one. All my Criterions (about 100) are in DVD, but NASHVILLE is one of those releases that makes me feel like it's time to upgrade. I'm personally glad I don't have to choose DVD (current) versus Blu-Ray (near future) and pay all that money again if I want to upgrade certain disks. I assume Criterion will be doing dual-format releases with everything new from this point on . . . and that's fine with me.
That's why The Criterion release of "Nashville" is a cause for celebration. After having been forced to watch "Nashville" in its unimpressive Paramount DVD, watching "Nashville" on the Criterion Blu-Ray is like seeing a new movie come to life. The 2K restoration of the picture is absolutely spectacular and the remastered sound now makes you feel like you're in the presence of the performers, especially if you have strong speakers. When Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) records his jingoistic "200 Years" track in the music studio, you feel like you're in that studio as he sings. Listening to Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) perform her songs at the Opryland USA park is like sitting in the stands watching her sing. "Nashville" was shot with each of the actors having mobile mikes, creating a different approach in sound recording that has become trend today. That wasn't noticeable in the clunky Paramount DVD, but the Criterion edition makes it palpable. In the end, "Nashville" has never looked AND sounded good until now.
In addition to its marvelous picture and audio quality, "Nashville" also has the privilege of being presented with supplements that honors the movie's legacy and importance. There's an insightful one hour-plus documentary on the making of the movie featuring many of the cast and crew members that worked on the movie. You also get to see behind-the-scenes footage of how the movie was shot and an enjoyable demo of Keith Carradine performing a song. As an added bonus, all the extras that were in the Paramount DVD (including Altman's audio commentary) are added here as well. Best of all, "Nashville" is one of the first Criterion movies to be released in a dual Blu-Ray/DVD format, meaning that you can get the Blu-Ray AND the DVD discs at the same time. In contrast to the disappointing "Heaven's Gate" release, Criterion really pulled out all the stops in distributing this marvelous movie.
And what about the movie itself? The movie remains a landmark in American cinema, a stunning masterwork that rivals "Taxi Driver" and the two "Godfather" movies as amongst the best and most influential movies of the 70s. Many movies of the 70s have become dated and forgotten in cinema history. "Nashville" is one of the movies that gets better with age. With its hugely successful blend of political ambition, strong satire and outstanding characterization, "Nashville" seems more relevant today than it did back in 1975.
Everybody who loves "Nashville" remembers the characters - the delicate, vulnerable country singer (Barbara Jean) and her controlling husband (Allen Garfield); the pompous but ultimately caring Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) and his grating companion Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley); the good-hearted but tragically tone-deaf singer (Gwen Welles) who aspires to be the next country star; Barbara Jean's popular but supremely mediocre rival Connie White (Karen Black); the dysfunction country trio (Keith Carradine, Allan F. Nicholls, Cristina Raines); the obnoxious BBC reporter and comic-relief Opal (Geraldine Chaplin); Linnea Reese, the gospel singer who has the misfortune of marrying her deceitful husband Delbert (Ned Beatty) and mothering two deaf children; the lonely uncle Mr. Green (Kenneth Wynn), who tries to get his heartless niece/groupie Martha (Shelley Duvall) to talk to her aunt; and last but not least, Winifred (or Albuquerque in the movie credits), played with child-like innocence by Barbara Harris, who is denied a chance to prove her talents but winds up being a factor to rise people's spirits in the movie's climatic sequence. And there's still more characters that I haven't mention.
These characters are not simplistic stereotypes or stock characters; they are real people. These characters have emotional depth and they inhibit human strengths and weaknesses that make them identifiable. In the movie's most famous sequence, when the womanizer Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) performs "I'm Easy", Altman cuts close-ups to the faces of most of the movie's female characters' whom Frank had established a relationship with. Even though Frank is singing for Linnea Reese, we see the rest of women in awe, believing that the song was meant for them. It's a beautiful sequence that is simultaneously funny and believable because how many women have had someone sing for them, only to find out it was not the case? Gwen Welles' character initially begins as a sweet but naive singer clueless of her limited talent but in the end, when she is forced to not only be stripteased but be denied the spotlight that was promised to her, there's a sense of pathos. In the beginning, you laugh at her, but in the end, you feel bad for this innocent character.
That's what makes "Nashville" a great movie - the movie, for all its politics and satire, is about the characters. As the movie develops, so do the characters. They deceive, they have affairs, they disrespect and bully, but in the end, they do the best they can to survive and succeed. And in the pivotal Parthenon concert, when tragedy strikes, characters we thought we knew wind up taking us by surprise. This powerful tapestry of comedy, tragedy, musical and satire hits us because we've not only become attached to the characters, but we ARE those characters in real life.
"Nashville" is one of those great movies that leave you with an emotional high, a feeling of discovery and elation rarely seen in American movies today. For many years, "Nashville" was only available in the mediocre Paramount DVD. Thankfully, Criterion has righted all the wrongs and presented "Nashville" in the best picture and audio quality possible, breathing new life and bringing more audience to this cinematic treasure. Don't miss out on this indispensable American classic.
Strongest recommendation to buy at all costs.
The "Nashville" release will be in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack having one Blu-ray disc and 2 DVDs. It has been confirmed that all Bonus content will be available in both formats. The movie gets a new 2K digital restoration with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
Audio commentary featuring director Robert Altman
New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls, and Lily Tomlin; assistant director Alan Rudolph; and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury
Archival interviews with Altman
Demos of Carradine singing his songs from the film
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Molly Haskell
"Nashville" is, perhaps, one of the experiences in my life that made me really evaluate the art of filmmaking. That's why I am so extremely passionate and supportive of it. For me, it was right up there with "The Godfather, Parts 1 and 2" as the benchmark for artistic vision in the seventies. In trademark Altman style, he collected 24 disparate characters and set them loose in the country music capital. As actors collided with real personalities, it was a kaleidoscope of semi-improvisational brilliance. Touching on the nature of celebrity, political apathy, and social unrest, Altman's unparalleled cast wove together an unforgettable tapestry that truly represents a specificity of time and place. I remember the impact the movie had on me on my first viewing. It redefined everything I knew about narrative structure and storytelling. I'd never seen anything like it, and it's still Altman's masterpiece. He has utilized a similar style many times since, but the way he brings together the storylines for the stunning finale of "Nashville" still resonates powerfully. I watch it every couple of years.
The movie was nominated for multiple Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress Lily Tomlin, and Best Supporting Actress Ronee Blakely) and won for Keith Carradine's Original Song "I'm Easy." Altman encouraged the actors to develop their own musical material and songs, and it sure paid off for Carradine. The movie's cast is a who's who of the time, many members of Altman's regular stable. In addition to those already mentioned, the movie features many others including Barbara Harris, Karen Black, Scott Glenn, Ned Beatty, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelly Duvall, Henry Gibson, Allen Garfield, Jeff Goldblum, and Michael Murrphy. The movie is smart, funny, and even tragic by turns and there are tons of musical performances. It may not be for everyone, but it's an undeniable American classic that is just as challenging and vital today as it was in 1975. Thanks Criterion! KGHarris, 9/13.