Release Date(s)1975 (December 3, 2013)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Criterion - Spine #683)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Nashville still has as much relevancy as it did in 1975 when it was released. Directed by Robert Altman, the film tells about the lives of a variety of different characters looking to make it in country music and the entertainment business in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a somewhat controversial film within the Nashville community as they believed it was poking fun and taking potshots at people within that community, while on the other hand it was a major critical success and earned a decent profit at the box office. It was also nominated for five Oscars and nine Golden Globes, winning Best Original Song at both ceremonies.
Some folks would consider Robert Altman to be a bit of a broken poet, but his intention wasn’t ever to wax poetic in his films. His intention was to approach filmmaking from a different perspective and in an unorthodox way, or rather doing it in his own way. In the case of Nashville, he presents a sort of microcosm of people at a certain time, but he never encourages you to identify with them or to dislike them. They come as is, in other words. You like or dislike characters based upon your own personal experiences or your own belief system, and not because the film encourages you to feel a certain a way. It doesn’t hold your hand or whisper minor details to change your opinion about something, which is what a traditional film, especially an art film, would do, but not Nashville.
The film acts as sort of a collective of American characters in a way. The setting was, in Altman’s and the screenwriter’s minds, an east coast Hollywood where many a young person came with very little in order to get a whole lot. All of the twenty-four characters in the film, as well as the folks that surrounded them, are a part of this trek, either directly or indirectly. Robert Altman hired relatively unknown actors, encouraging them to improvise with their characters and write their own music. In the case of Keith Carradine, he was actually one of the film’s lynchpins after Altman worked with him on Thieves Like Us and had heard some of Carradine’s music. It sealed the idea in Altman’s mind that he wanted his actors to write their own material. And although the final film is different from what was originally written (a common practice of Altman’s was to only use the script as a blueprint), the ideas remain relatively the same. It’s a film that doesn’t really say anything but also says a lot of things at the same time, which is what Altman had intended it to do.
It’s not a traditional film with a traditional story either. It doesn’t really contain much of a plot or any real dramatic arcs. It’s more about these different groups of people during their daily lives and how they all affect one another. There’s a wide variety of characters moving from scene to scene and we learn about them through the context of their actions. For example, it’s clear that Shelly Duvall’s character is a bit of a flakey person, jumping from one group of people to the next without any clear direction or idea of what it is that she wants besides rubbing shoulders with famous people. Keith Carradine’s character also has no arc or direction, but his defining quality is his indifference towards women; he’s simply looking for companionship rather than love, making him a more dislikable character than most others in the film, and he’s one of the characters we spend the most time with. There’s also Geraldine Chaplin and Gwen Welles’ characters, both not up to the task of what they’re doing but still wanting to reach out and touch something golden. It’s Ronee Blakley’s character who is the center of it all and the main motivating factor behind a lot of the film’s events, in particular the film’s final moments. Also in the cast are Karen Black, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, David Arkin, Scott Gleen, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Murphy, Ned Beatty, and many others. It’s one of film’s great ensemble casts.
I can’t honestly say that I consider myself a Robert Altman acolyte, but I do appreciate a lot of the work that he did over the course of his career, which Nashville would fall under that heading for me. It helped to further Altman’s use of sound in motion pictures and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1992, which is not small potatoes. I don’t necessarily consider it a film that I could watch over and over again and soak up all of its parts, but it is an amazing film, and one that influenced not just his later work but other filmmakers’ work as well.
Criterion’s presentation of Nashville on Blu-ray is presented via a 2K restoration from a 35mm interpositive of the film. The results are quite splendid. Despite the film’s soft look (most of Altman’s work during the 60’s and 70’s have this look to it), there’s a very fine amount of detail on display. Grain is handled quite well, although some scenes seem to have more of it than others. Colors are also quite rich when given the chance, especially with the costumes and sets at the Grand Ole Opry as seen in the film. Skin tones fare quite well also. Black levels and shadow detail are never quite consistent, but what is there has plenty of depth to it. Contrast is also at an acceptable level. The images are quite stable and clean, although occasional small flecks will pop up from time to time. I didn’t notice any signs of digital enhancement either. But the thing to remember about the presentation presented here is that there’s only so much you can really do with it. The look of the film stems from the original photography and a lot of depth issues and soft focus is inherent to the print itself, so this isn’t going to look ultra-sharp with amazing background detail. That being said, what has been pulled out of the interpositive that was used to create this transfer excels above anything previously released, especially Paramount’s previous DVD release of the film. The audio for the film has been upgraded to an English 5.1 DTS-HD track, and it’s undoubtedly a film that needs to be heard in a surround environment. Quite obviously, all of the sound is scattered from speaker to speaker, which is a typical Altman soundtrack. Dialogue isn’t always distinct or clear as it’s mixed together from the different microphones that all of the actors were wearing while shooting the film. However, the dialogue that was meant to be heard is very clean and understandable. The film’s use of music really benefits from the new track, as it’s given a wider soundstage to play in, giving scenes a lot more depth. I would have also liked to have had the film’s original soundtrack as an option for comparison and completist reasons, but oh well. Overall, this is the best the film has ever looked and sounded, bar none. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
There’s also a nice bevy of supplemental material to dig through as well. There’s an audio commentary with Robert Altman himself; the brand new The Making of Nashville documentary; three separate Robert Altman interviews from 1975, 2000, and 2002; a set of behind-the-scenes footage that was shot on location during the making of the film; a demo recording of Keith Carradine singing “I’m Easy,” “It Don’t Worry Me,” and “Big City Dreamin’;” the film’s original theatrical trailer; a 16-page booklet with an essay on the film by critic Molly Haskell; and two DVDs with the same content on both discs.
It should go without saying but Criterion’s release of Nashville finally gives the film the proper treatment that it deserves. It’s not one of my favorite films, but it is for many people and I appreciate the effort that went into making it and the final product itself. I think Altman made better films before and after Nashville, personally, but it’s not to be discarded. It’s a terrific film with a great ensemble and now presented in the best quality available. In other words, a highly recommended release.
- Tim Salmons