This year, America’s birthday falls amidst a historically pivoting era in its existence as a nation. In its 244th run around the sun, the country has been fighting a global pandemic, dealing with an economic recession, hosting one of the largest civil rights movements it has ever seen, and preparing for an upcoming Presidential election between two not-so-very popular candidates in the Fall. The Fourth of July, 2020 is an introspective one. As a nation, we must reflect on what roles we play in the country we inhabit, how we participate when the powers-that-be seem to be failing us, and what exactly is our relationship to our American identity.
Released 45 years ago, Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) brings people near and far to the capital of country music and all things Americana to construct an elaborate portrait of contemporary American society. The 1970s in America was an era doused in the shadow of the political and cultural turmoil of its preceding decade. Nashville captures this overarching energy in a natural air of authenticity and an uneasy sense of familiarity making it a relevant film to discuss in our current climate.
Following over 24 characters, Nashville takes the audience on a wild ride through Nashville, Tennessee by way of wit and satire to paint the landscape of a piece of American society. The tangled storylines and characters in Nashville bring viewers into chaotic and noisy spaces with a fast-paced momentum through the cluttered compositions of its shots and the choir of conversations that are in constant overlap.
Nashville seeks to address many ideas including politics, the entertainment industry, and celebrity idolatry, beginning with a title sequence that establishes the film as an entertainment commodity. A fast-talking announcer lists off the film’s leading talents and upcoming musical performers over stitched-together sound bite previews of featured songs from the film’s soundtrack, hyping up the audience for the star-spangled cacophonous spectacle that awaits them.
Opening on an unclear political note, we are introduced to two politically motivated characters. Skeptical populist Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillip) of the Replacement Party is the invisible third party candidate running for President whose name and voice seem to be everywhere in Nashville. Via campaign media, young canvassers, and a van that spews his voice, his critique of the current state of politics and government falls on deaf years on and off the screen. Local Tennessee country music star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who doesn’t “take sides politically,” boldly contrasts Hal Philip Walker with his patriotic gusto, gaudy white attire, and clear local influence, appearing alongside some of the city’s biggest names.
Among Nashville’s heroes is the idolized country music star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) who, throughout the film, is draped in holy-looking white lace. Monitored and managed by her frequently frantic husband, Barnett (Allen Garfield), Barbara Jean appears to be physically and mentally ill, spending lots of time confined to a hospital bed if not on stage where she is shown to faint or ramble with tangents of childhood memories. Her importance to the Nashville community is made clear by her grand introduction to the film. We watch her be welcomed back to the city with a large event full of local appreciation, twirlers, and an elaborate crowd full of the city’s elite.
Barbara Jean presents a rather interesting enigma as a potential metaphor for something much larger within the thematic narrative of the film. Many have commented on her similarities to the real-life Queen of Country Music, Loretta Lynn, but the complexity of her significance against the already complicated dynamic of the film itself leads us to believe there might be more to unpack. Barbara Jean is fragile, beautiful, and talented. Idolized by many of the characters, she is characterized as a saint to the people of Nashville. However, what goes on behind the scenes is a political game of keeping up appearances and maintaining the ethereal façade that everyone knows and loves as she progressively deteriorates throughout the film.
In many ways, Barbara Jean represents an implied idea of the American spirit. A beautiful image with an ill structure. Constantly controlled and surveilled, while the masses of people project their hopes and dreams upon her. The element of a willful ignorance, a conscious blindness, or an active defiance keeps those who worship her in the dark and maintains their naiveté to the truth that is always there right behind the curtain.
As the film has a run time of 2 hours and 38 minutes and follows over 20 characters, it’s difficult to condense all that can be dissected from Nashville in a limited amount of words. However, we are living during a time where self-analysis is important in assessing our own relationship to the idea of the United States of America. As a citizen of any nation, an evaluation of ourselves and of the projected image of the country we pay our dues to is a necessary step to take towards understanding the role we play within the nation we inhabit. The year 1975 is not too far behind us, and although much has changed in the last 45 years, progress is a slow burner, and much more work needs to be done.