Thursday, 8 May 2014

Review : Nashville (1975)

One of director Robert Altman's seminal works and criminally unavailable until now, Nashville's multi-layered tapestry cuts through the aspiration to the American Dream with the director's trademark wit and bite.

Finally arriving on home video in the UK for the first time, as a pristine Blu-ray/DVD dual-format release by Eureka's Masters of Cinema imprint, Robert Altman's sprawling satirical amble through the Country soul of 70s Americana may not quite lay claim to being the filmmaker's greatest achievement (McCabe & Mrs Miller, Short Cuts, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us - take your pick), but remains a quintessential embodiment of his thematic and stylistic concerns.

Following some two dozen characters as they pass, intersect and crash into each other - literally, in the opening freeway pile-up - Nashville's tragi-comic meander through the eponymous city's music scene, whilst frequently hilarious, is infused with melancholy. Examining, as Altman so often does, the disconnect between manufactured illusion and the barely submerged discontent of reality, it's a cyncial skewering of vanity and celebrity, played out as a series of Hawksian digressions against a political backdrop of tenuously clutched ideals of local and national identity.

Fittingly for a film so much about disillusionment, Altman often keeps his characters at arm's length, shooting wide for us to pick them out from a crowd. Some, such as Scott Glenn's Vietnam vet or Jeff Goldblum's nameless trike-rider, barely utter so much as a line of dialogue, as others find themselves with plenty to say but no one to listen. Everyone in Nashville is after some kind of connection - the stars to their audience, the faceless presidential candidate to his voters - much may be self-serving and opportunistic, but all finally proves hollow.

It's an American Tragedy that cuts through the platitudes of its bicentennial celebrations with a biting irony. "We must be doing something right to last 200 years," sings Henry Gibson's country star in the opening number. Altman allows the songs time to play out, kitsch banalaties of hope and delusion transforming into righteous truths for those who are - and those who want to be - delivering them. As Gibson seems to say in the final scene: it'll all be ok, as long as we keep on singing.

And yet for all its cynicism, Nashville remains as much a cultural celebration. Altman is too humanistic a filmmaker to condescend to his characters, despite their egos and destructive tendencies. It's a musical that plays in a unique register, its often cacophonous detail both as alternately manic and rambling, languorous and sorrowful as the hopes and disenchantments of its extended cast of wannabes, somebodies and nobodies.

Disc: The exquisite Blu-Ray transfer is simply nothing short of breathtaking. Extras include two short but interesting interviews with Altman (shot in 2000 & 2001), along with actor Michael Murphy. The real meat comes from Altman's commentary and an insightful interview with writer Joan Tewkesbury, although those with a particularly keen interest would be even better served by Jan Stuart's fantastic book, Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece.

Nashville - 1975 - USA - 160 minutes - dir: Robert Altman

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