Criterion // 1975 // 160 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 3rd, 2013
The damnedest thing you ever saw!
Most people know Los Angeles as the Dream Factory, where young people (especially young women) go to find their fame and fortune. Most of us also know that for every man or woman who makes it onto the big screen there are hundreds of hopefuls arriving to the city only to have their dreams crushed, instead finding jobs as wait staff or heading home. What fewer people realize is that Nashville is basically the same thing, but for musicians instead of actors. Unlike Hollywood, though, it's possible to earn a decent living as a songwriter in Nashville without having a hit single or even recording a single song. Hopeful musicians arrive to publishing contracts, where they write songs for other artists (usually the ones you know from the radio). The lucky few will have their songs recorded by a famous artists, and a few will be hits. One or two songs like that can give a writer a comfortable life. For everybody else, though, it's a grind of chasing hits and trying to write songs. Though Los Angeles has dozens of iconic films dedicated to its dream-eating ways (including Short Cuts), perhaps only Robert Altman's Nashville conveys the wearying world of country music. Thanks to the folks at Criterion, we have a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack -- Nashville (Blu-ray) -- that provides the definite home-video version of the film.
Through twenty-four characters, Nashville offers a portrait of Music City and its country music denizens. There's fading star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley, A Nightmare on Elm Street), record mogul Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson, The 'Burbs), hopeful singer Albuquerque (Barbara Harris, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and womanizing singer-songwriter Tom Frank (Keith Carradine, Cowboys and Aliens). Though they all lead separate lives, Nashville brings them together in a series of dramatic moments.
Time and again Robert Altman would stage multilayered ensemble dramas, rehearsing his actors in each scene so that he could run multiple cameras simultaneously, picking the moments he wanted while filming was occurring. Though it works beautifully in films like The Player (especially its famous opening shot) and Gosford Park, it probably never worked quite as well as it did in Nashville (or maybe Short Cuts, but that's quibbling). Poised right between his triumphant entry into the 1970s with M*A*S*H/Brewster McCloud and his ignominious exit from Hollywood favor for the eighties, Popeye, Nashville is the apotheosis of Altman's signature brand of filming. This technique has the effect of flattening the frame, making everything in it important. Most films tend to use inserts and conventional framing to match shot to action: this character is important because they're framed when speaking, this letter opener is shown in insert because it'll be the murder weapon, that kind of thing. In Altman's hands, everything seems possible, as neither the director nor the viewer are sure quite where the camera is going next.
Perhaps more importantly, Altman's particular brand of filming requires significant rehearsals for the actors, so they know these characters intimately. That's never been more true than on Nashville, which is a tour de force of acting brilliance. Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, and Barbara Harris all had to do their own performing in the film, with Carradine going so far as to pen his character's song,"I'm Easy," snagging an Oscar for best original song along the way. Because the whole film isn't shot/reverse shot, the actors have time to develop their performances organically, acting with each other rather than responding to their off-screen counterparts. Though few of the actors are remembered as top-tier stars, most of them are character actors of some repute, and to see them at the top of their game like this is a wonderful experience.
Perhaps the main reason that Nashville is the best of Altman's ensemble-style films is that it's the one where the climax doesn't feel contrived. When dealing with this many characters it can be hard to both tell their stories and find ways for them to intersect. Though I don't want to spoil the ending, Nashville finds a natural way to let the main characters wrap up their stories while bringing them together. It's a masterful bit of filmmaking that repays the attention this 160-minute film demands.
Nashville (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection is a revelation. The Blu-ray disc and two DVDs are housed in a cardboard tray that folds, also housing the usual booklet. This tray slips into a handsome, thick-stock sleeve. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is beautiful. The source print is in wonderful shape, and this transfer keeps the clarity and sharpness of the 35mm inter-positive used as a source. Close-ups are especially clear, and the sharpness gives an impressively filmlike grain structure. Colors are true to the mid-seventies film stock, with good saturation throughout. Black levels are fine, and no digital manipulation mars the image. Overall, this is how Nashville is supposed to look on home video. The film's audio is presented in a DTS-HD 5.1 surround track that's similarly wonderful. Dialogue gets lots of space, coming from multiple directions in Altman's layered frame, and the film's music has a wonderful dynamic range and impressive clarity.
Extras start with the commentary Altman made for the film in 2000. He's wonderfully candid and happy to talk about the film, presenting info for a surprising amount of the 160-minute running time. New to Nashville (Blu-ray) is a 71-minute documentary on the film, including input from some of the surviving stars, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, the film's A.D., and Altman's widow. It's informative and provides some balance to the Altman-heavy commentary. Three video interview with Altman are also included, from 1975, 2001, and 2002. There is also some behind-the-scenes footage, along with Carradine performing demos of the songs he wrote for the film. The disc rounds out with the film's trailer. The set includes the usual Criterion booklet, including a nice essay by critic Molly Haskell. The set also includes two DVDs that mimic all the content of the Blu-ray in standard def, as Criterion has indicated their releases will do from 2013 forward.
Nashville is long, and not structured like the typical Hollywood film. Audiences will have to give the film a bit of space and time to develop, and those looking for slam-bang editing and gunfights would do best to look elsewhere.
A landmark of 1970s cinema, one of the brightest stars in Altman's personal constellation, and a beautiful portrait of a city and and industry, Nashville finally gets the home video presentation it deserves with this Criterion release. Throw away your other editions for this one, which is easy to recommend to fans of the film. Anyone with an interest in the actors, 1970s filmmaking, or later Altman would do well to at least give this set a rental.
I'm easy: not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 160 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy