Although M*A*S*H has always been more popular, and there are those who would make higher claims for McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Player or Short Cuts, few would dispute that Nashville is one of Robert Altman's finest achievements, if not one of the great American films of the Seventies. Throughout that decade, Altman was a considerable maverick force in US cinema, and a great innovator in his use of multiplot narrative structure, improvisatory acting, documentary-like filmmaking techniques, and overlapping sound.
Nashville pushed many of these techniques to their utmost. It's a two-and-a-half hour epic, at times satirical and at times heartfelt, which covers the lives of twenty-four characters over five days in Nashville, the home of country music. At times the film seems almost free-form, but subsequent viewings reveal how tightly organised the film is, as the large cast interact with each other and are brought together at the end of the film, a large political rally. Altman's "democratic" style means that there's usually more than one thing going on in the Scope frame. (All but one – Thieves Like Us – of Altman's Seventies films were shot in Scope, and are ruined by panning and scanning.) Altman often shot scenes with multiple cameras, and his cast stayed in character at all times, with body microphones to pick up the sound, not knowing when they were in shot and when not. Many of Altman's characteristic multilayered soundtracks were produced in the pre-Dolby era and tested the possibilities of mono optical sound to their limits. (Nashville had showings with a four-track magnetic soundtrack, but it's a fair bet that this DVD is the first chance most people will have had to hear it in anything other than mono, of which more later.) As a result there's a huge amount of visual and aural information to take in, which can make this film somewhat overwhelming first time round.
But what is beyond doubt is the strength of the acting and the unsparing insight that Altman and his cast brings to each scene. Ronee Blakley (as Barbara Jean, a country singer teetering on the edge of a breakdown) and Lily Tomlin (as Linnea, the gospel singer wife of political flack Ned Beatty, and occasional mistress of Keith Carradine's womanising singer) received the acting Oscar nominations, but it's hard to single anyone out. The only Oscar was won by Keith Carradine's self-composed song "I'm Easy", and this is a great scene: as he plays, each one of his conquests in the audience is thinking the song is about her. Country music fans have complained that the music in the film – most of it written by the cast and/or musical director Richard Baskin, who appears in the opening scene as Frog the pianist – is not the best Nashville has to offer. Altman responds that the music is meant to be representative, and Nashville produces bad music as well as good. One of the most painful subplots follows talentless but determined Sueleen Gay (the late Gwen Welles), who is coerced into stripping with the promise of some time on stage at the rally. And as for the Bicentennial song "200 Years", which opens the film and which Henry Gibson wrote in character as country singer Haven Hamilton, the line between satire on patriotic flagwaving and a sincere endorsement of same is so fine as to be invisible. Elliott Gould and Julie Christie make brief appearances as themselves, and George Segal would have done if he had not ended up on the cutting room floor.
Altman has never been the warmest of directors, and if the film is flawed it's in his occasional inability to resist scoring points off his characters. Geraldine Chaplin's Opal, a documentary filmmaker from the BBC, is the main butt of this, but to be fair some of this is contributed by the actress herself. (Opal says "British Broadcasting Company" instead of "Corporation", an over-subtle indication by Chaplin that her character is fraudulent.) "Unsparing" is perhaps the right word. Alan Rudolph, who worked as an assistant director, is much more of a romantic – his 1977 Altman-produced Welcome to L.A. features Keith Carradine in a similar role to the one he plays here. Paul Thomas Anderson obviously learned a lot from Nashville – the casting of Henry Gibson in Magnolia can be no accident – but again is more generous to his characters.
This DVD is an anamorphic transfer, correctly framed at 2.35:1. The colours aren't as bold as those on some other discs, but that's due to the original materials – Altman and his cinematographers often "flashed" the negative, partially exposing it to light and reducing its contrast. There have been rumours that the negative has deteriorated, but there's nothing wrong with whatever this DVD was sourced from, with not so much as a scratch, let alone worse damage. There is some artefacting, mostly shimmering caused by car radiator grilles, venetian blinds and the like. The soundtrack is remixed from the original four tracks into Dolby Digital 5.1. The surround channels only come into their own during the musical sequences, and there's barely any use of the subwoofer at all. In quality and impact, it's on a level with a good Dolby Surround track, and just misses the sharpness and dynamic range of a track intended for 5.1 from the outset. Considering the intricacy of the soundtrack, subtitles become even more necessary than usual, so it's as well that they are included. There are seventeen chapter stops, which is meagre for a film of this length.
Just for once, the trailer would be useful to watch before the film without spoiling it, as it gives a quick run-through of all twenty-four main characters and their relationships to each other and ends with "The damndest thing you ever saw!" The trailer is in anamorphic 1.85:1 and suffers from scratches. The twelve-minute interview with Altman continues where the trailer leaves off, with mostly brief accounts of how he came to cast each actor. The interview is 4:3 with a slight visual softness due to its video origins. Unfortunately these two extras have the effect of making Altman's commentary redundant. It's not that he doesn't say anything interesting – he does – but much of it duplicates what is elsewhere on the disc. Altman evidently can't find enough to say to fill two and a half hours, as there are some very long gaps. Perhaps someone else could have contributed their comments and the two commentaries would be edited together.
Considering the film's importance and quality, it's good that Paramount have released this DVD to mark the film's twenty-fifth anniversary. In terms of picture and sound this is as good a presentation as you will probably ever get, and at least Paramount have made some effort with the extras. But this film is so good that even a bare-bones disc would get my recommendation.