NASHVILLE – Blu-ray review

This is my third tour through “Nashville” (1975) and it will probably be my last.

When Criterion first announced Robert Altman’s “Nashville” as an upcoming release, my Facebook feed exploded with hosannas: “Must have!”, “Top Ten All Time!”, “Best… movie… ever!” And when that effusive praise comes from critics whose taste I greatly respect and so often agree with I take it seriously. And I feel all the worse for not sharing the enthusiasm at all.

Still, I hadn’t seen “Nashville” in about ten years and I looked forward to giving it one more crack. Movies don’t change, but people change and so does taste. I went in with hope, but it was dashed from the very first minute, when I thought, “Oh right, I forgot all about this.”

“Nashville” begins its audio assault in the opening credits, presented by a shrieking announcer as if promoting an upcoming cable variety program. The film then introduces us to its ballyhooed cast of twenty-four characters, each bopping around Nashville for a variety of reasons related to the country music scene. One thing all but a few of them have in common is that they almost never stop talking, often at the same time in unrelated conversations; Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue has never overlapped more. Every now and then they stop talking in order to sing, and the rare moments when nobody on-screen is  talking or singing are filled by the prattling blare of a traveling P.A. system spouting campaign rhetoric from the third-party presidential candidate whose rally will unite all the disparate characters.

The film’s audio design was groundbreaking, employing a newly designed multi-track recording system that enabled each of the actors to wear their own microphone. They could then freely roam the crowded, chaotic spaces through which Altman sends the camera on a quest to capture whatever snippets of partly-improvised dialogue or behavior crop up. It can be an enveloping experience or an overwhelming one, perhaps both, but I constantly find myself desperate for a pocket of silence to recuperate from the onslaught. I guess that’s what the pause button is for.

The characters can be equally difficult to take. There’s the narcissistic country singer (Henry Gibson), the narcissistic folk singer (Keith Carradine), the narcissistic BBC reporter (Geraldine Chaplin), the narcissistic wanna-be groupie (Shelley Duvall, who I adore unconditionally, but who I never needed to see attired as a rainbow-hued prostitute), the narcissistic political organizer (Michael Murphy), and, oh wait, here’s a really nice woman named Linnea (Lily Tomlin). She sings gospel and dotes on her two deaf children and, aw geez, now she’s cheating on her husband (Ned Beatty, who fails in his efforts to cheat on her) with the narcissistic rock singer because he sang her a song so bad it won an Oscar. Maybe we can put our hopes in that nice young man with the glasses and the guitar case. At least he’s quiet.

Seeing as I’ve just done more than my share of judging, I won’t rehash any of the old and tired arguments about whether or not Altman is mocking country music (he let his non-musician cast write and perform their own songs and stated, “If you’re a country and western music fan, you probably won’t enjoy it”) or condescending to his characters and his material. He certainly saw fit to populate his  Nashville landscape with a collection of people completely absorbed by their own ambitions, always on the make or being made by the schemers. And good lord so much of the music is so very, very bad. The hokey patriotic Henry Gibson song that opens the film plays like a cheap joke (“We must be doin’ something right to last 200 years!”), but at least Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) can actually belt out a tune. Of course she will suffer horribly for the sin of having talent.

Altman paints a vivid portrait of a self-contained pocket universe where pseudo-celebrities rule the roost (Elliott Gould and Julie Christie cameo as themselves, but play second fiddle to the country stars nobody outside of Nashville has heard of), and today it plays as a prescient precursor of reality shows to be. Perhaps my own total disinterest in celebrity culture (pseudo or otherwise) keeps me from engaging with the film or fully empathizing with the throng of desperate wanna-bes and hangers-on.

I think Altman does respect his dreamers, particularly in the way he understands that their petty ambitions are not petty at all to them, although it’s sometimes hard to tell with his caricatured depiction of the culture to which they all flock. The final scene is also the best, and dares to end with a camera tilt to the heavens. I don’t know that Altman intends the finale to be inspiring, but it at least feels like a tribute of some sort, perhaps to an ensemble who collaborated in a way no cast had worked before. I just wish I didn’t find the rest so unpleasant to watch.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I don’t own the 2000 Paramount SD release as a comparison point, but this 1080p transfer from Criterion leaves nothing to be desired. It has a fine grainy texture and the high-def image quality displays an almost supernatural amount of detail in the numerous crowd scenes and other very busy canvases in the film. Fans will enjoy scanning the images to pick out small details and expressions that weren’t evident anywhere outside of the theater before. A fantastic transfer.

All Criterion releases are now duel-format which means that in addition to the single Blu-ray, the package also includes two DVDs with the film and then all the supplements on separate discs.

Considering the film’s unique recording method, it’s hard to evaluate whether the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround track is a fully accurate representation of the original audio, but the lossless track is plenty robust. You might still need subtitles, but that’s only because there’s so much overlapping dialogue; this is all crisply and clearly presented. Altman’s films rely on a deep, dynamic sound field, with audio coming from all corners of the scene and this transfer captures it as richly as possible; you get a real sense of place. The music is similarly well treated. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Robert Altman, originally recorded in 2000 for the old DVD release. Altman died in 2006, so it’s a great service just to have this commentary replicated on the Blu-ray.

New for this release is a “Making of” feature (2013, 71 min.) featuring interviews with many cast and crew members, including screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and assistant director Alan Rudolph. It’s as celebratory as you would expect, but this is about reminiscence, not analysis.

The disc also includes three interview with Robert Altman, one from 1975 (26 min.), one from 2000 (12 min.) and one from 2002 (8 min.) There’s understandable overlap among the three interviews with Altman repeating how he rejected the initial script he was given, then sent Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville (where he’d never been) to get ideas. He was then rejected by the studio which turned out to be a blessing as he was given near total creative freedom.

We also get a Behind-the-Scenes feature (12 min.), consisting of chopped-up video clips without sound and a Keaith Carradine audio demo in which he performs songs for Altman, including his Oscar-winning “I’m Easy.” The extras finish off with a 2-minute Trailer in pretty rough condition.

The 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Film Value:
I tried. I really did. So many people, so much noise. Just not my thing. I like plenty of Altman, but “Nashville” and “MASH” continue to elude me. For devotees, this Blu-ray transfer is fantastic, and the package of extras is strong as well, with a good balance of archival footage and new material.