Picking this up after another long break, this is the eighth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Nashville:
The funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen. Robert Altman’s movie is at once a Grand Hotel-style narrative, with 24 linked characters; a country-and-Western musical; a documentary essay on Nashville and American life; a meditation on the love affair between performers and audiences; and an Altman party. In the opening sequences, when Altman’s people—the performers we associate with him because he has used them in ways no one else would think of, and they’ve been filtered through his sensibility—start arriving, and pile up in a traffic jam on the way from the airport to the city, the movie suggests the circus procession at the non-ending of 8 1/2. But Altman’s clowns are far more autonomous; they move and intermingle freely, and the whole movie is their procession. The basic script is by Joan Tewkesbury, but the actors have been encouraged to work up material for their roles, and not only do they do their own singing but most of them wrote their own songs—and wrote them in character. The songs distill the singers’ lives, as the pantomimes and theatrical performances did for the actors in Children of Paradise.
The reason Nashville was included in the "Kael Festival" is obvious. Kael originally reviewed a rough cut of the film ... she was a big supporter of Altman's work, and he arranged a viewing hoping she might create some buzz. Her subsequent review (Molly Haskell called it a "dithyramb", and yes, I had to look up the meaning ... a "piece of writing that bursts with enthusiasm") certainly got people's attention. (Wikipedia refers to it as a "preview", since it preceded the film's actual release for a longish time.)
My opinion of Nashville has varied over the years, for one simple reason: I never know how to take the film's stance regarding country music. The rest of the movie deserves the highest praise, and that has always been true for me. But the idea of having actors write and perform their own songs, which makes a certain sense in terms of their characters, means we get a lot of mediocre-at-best music, presented as if it was beloved by country fans. This viewing, I guess I was feeling magnanimous, because the music didn't bother me as much as usual.
Henry Gibson is a good example. His portrayal of country icon Haven Hamilton, something like a Porter Wagoner, is wonderful. He acts with his eyes ... his disapproval is a scary thing. And there is something phony about Haven, who defines unctuous. Except by the end of the film, you realize that Haven's love for the music's culture and its fans is real ... he isn't really phony, even though he is playing a role. Gibson gives Haven status (ironic given Gibson/Haven's short height). But Gibson is a pretty poor singer. I could forgive this, because his songs are wonderfully obvious (interesting that most of his songs were written, not by Gibson, but by Richard Baskin). But I can't quit complaining about the way Nashville presents country fans as a group that loves bad singing ... it's insulting to the fans. But again, Gibson knocks it out of the park.
Some of the actors are better singers and songwriters than others ... David Carradine won an Oscar for Best Song for this picture. And Ronee Blakley is an actual singer ... I'm not a big fan of her music, but in Nashville, when she lets her voice run free, it's a beautiful thing, plus Blakley's performance won her a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (the idea of a supporting actor is pretty silly with Nashville, which features 24 supporting parts and no leads).
And Carradine also wrote "It Don't Worry Me", which pops up more than once, including the emotional finale, when Barbara Harris, whose character has seemed like a bimbo throughout, rises to the occasion with the most moving segment in the entire movie.
The performances are variable, but none of them are bad ... it's more that there are too many characters and so some aren't fleshed out. Of particular note, besides Gibson, Blakley, and Harris, I'd mention Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, and Keenan Wynn.
The Long Goodbye is my favorite Robert Altman film, but Nashville is a strong second.