DVD Revew: Nashville

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Robert Altman | STARS: Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum
RELEASE DATE: 12/3/13 | PRICE: Blu-ray/DVD Combo $39.95
BONUSES: Robert Altman audio commentary, essay by Molly Haskell, documentary “The Making of Nashville,” three interviews with Altman, behind-the-scenes footage, Keith Carradine demos
SPECS: R | 160 min. | Comedy-drama | 2.35:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video | Overall


“Someone has to turn the light on.” Robert Altman describes his filmmaking process this way in one of the many fascinating supplements included in this three-disc (two standard DVD, one Blu-ray) Criterion release of 1975′s Nashville, one of his best-known works. As is detailed at length by his collaborators in other supplements, Altman did incorporate sudden inspirations from cast and crew in his work, but he also maintained a vision of the film as a whole from preproduction to the final edit, granting him full status as an auteur (a term he outright rejects in an interview included here).

Nashville is a very much a film about America in the Seventies, but it contains certain elements that make it timeless, including its unflinching portrait of show-business ambitions (and humiliations) and the sudden burst of gun violence at the end of the film. And although its literary multiple-character structure has been copied endlessly (most notably by Altman devotee Paul Thomas Anderson), the film still stands as a model depiction of a community where each character has his or her own important part in the ongoing narrative (even the wildcards like Shelley Duvall’s “L.A. Joan” and Jeff Goldblum’s odd “Tricycle Man”).

Criterion’s remastering of the film is, as always, crisp and gorgeous, but the central attraction for cinephiles and Altman cultists who might have already brought the Paramount standard DVD are the host of extras. Chief among these is a new 71-minute documentary called “The Making of Nashville,” which includes interviews with cast members, scripter Joan Tewkesbury, Altman’s wife Kathryn and assistant director Alan Rudolph.

The interviewees happily discuss many topics, including Altman’s sublime knack for casting; his creation of a communal atmosphere among the cast and crew during the shoot; the degree of improvisation in the picture; and the ultimate message of the film.

Nashville movie scene

The gang's all here in Robert Altman's Nashville.

Comments about the last-mentioned come in two flavors (both of them being accurate) — that the film is not primarily about Nashville or country music at all, but is instead about show business in general (in one interview included here Altman declares Nashville is standing in for L.A.).

The other interpretation of the film is that the community here is presented as a microcosm of American life (something that Altman did again several times in his later work, most successfully in Short Cuts).

Several interesting items are explored at length in the documentary, the first being the way in which Tewkesbury fashioned her screenplay. Neither she nor Altman had ever visited Nashville before, and so the events of her first trip to the country-music capital became the narrative of the first half of the film (as carried out by Geraldine Chaplin’s reporter character).

On the topic of improvisation, it is stressed by all involved that Altman allowed his cast to come up with their own lines, but they had to stick to the basic thrust of the scene. Thus were born some wonderful moments created by the actors, including Ronee Blakley’s onstage crackup (written by Blakley herself) and Chaplin’s memorable monologue in a school bus parking lot.

The interviewees offer a clear-eyed perspective on Altman’s method, with his friend and protégé Alan Rudolph noting that when it came to directing his cast, “he wanted your secrets.” Blakley notes that Altman had few rules, but stuck firmly to two: don’t contradict him on-set and don’t arrive stoned or drunk.

Altman has his say in a trio of interviews included here. In a 1975 talk he unveils the genesis of the film, which was partly commercial (he was asked to make a film about country music) and part aesthetic (he had conceived of a “community” film set in Chicago in the late Sixties). He also discusses his oblique method of storytelling in which the “ends” of the action are what interested him most.

The rarest of all the supplements is a 12-minute segment of “home movies” that were shot during the only two sequences uniting every cast member — a traffic jam near the opening of the picture and the final concert/rally sequence. Another rarity from the archives is a demo tape of Keith Carradine singing three songs for the film, including his Oscar-winning “I’m Easy.”

In one of the interviews here Altman talks about a proposal to show the film over several nights on network TV (a la The Godfather Saga) with deleted scenes edited back in. Those scenes are sadly lost at this point (Altman admitted in a magazine interview a few years before his death that they were indeed gone), because of disinterest from ABC, the original production entity that made the film along with Paramount.

The longest extra included in the package is the full-length audio commentary Altman did for the Paramount DVD in 2000. Truth be told, there is more honesty about the film shoot to be found in the interviews. Altman apparently didn’t want to utter a harsh word in the commentary, even about the actor whom he never got along with (according to his widow in the “Making of” docu), Allen Garfield, and the production designer (Polly Platt) who walked off the film summarily when Altman devised the film’s final violent surprise.

The most interesting part of the commentary concerns a call he received from a Washington Post reporter asking if he “felt responsible” for John Lennon’s killing, since he and Tewkesbury unknowingly predicted it in a way in Nashville’s disturbing climax.

His answer to the question was eloquent (he asked the reporter “don’t you feel responsible for not heeding my warning?”) and proved once again that, while he encouraged the notion that he was a laidback “ringmaster” rather than a Kubrick- or Hitchcock-like control freak, he was indeed a dedicated artist who cared very deeply about the work he was doing.


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”