I’ve been on a Robert Altman kick these last few months, working through the late director’s diverse body of work. I watched what many consider his masterpiece, 1975’s Nashville, for the first time in years, and it’s surprising how relevant a 43-year-old movie about life in America still feels today.
OK, sure, it’s steeped in ‘70s fashion and style (Shelley Duvall’s barely-there groupie wardrobe deserves its own biopic), but underneath Altman’s sprawling loose-limbed tale of a diverse group of country musicians and politicians over a few days in Nashville is a keen eye for the eternal conflict in America – between messy reality and the urge to mythologise itself.
Altman clearly saw the two Americas back in 1975 that we still have today, where one man’s entertainment is another man’s outrage, where one man’s favourite song is another man’s cheese. There’s multiple perspectives to be had on almost every moment in the film, depending on where you view it from.
A waitress believes she’s a great country singer despite the evidence. A smug BBC reporter constantly holds forth yet is quietly despised by everyone she interviews. One star country singer is an emotionally fragile wreck, another is a fading star worried about his own coming irrelevance. A black country singer who performs at the Grand Ole Opry is terrific, but reaction shots of the all-white audience show a lot of staring, silent faces.
Take a scene where Keith Carradine sings his Academy Award-winning love song, “I’m Easy,” to Lily Tomlin in a crowded bar. It’s a heart-tugging, gorgeous romantic moment, but the sentiment it’s filled with is undercut almost instantly because we know Carradine’s character is hopping from bed to bed, casual enough about it to call his next hookup while his current one is still getting dressed in his hotel room. That song is just a song.
A maverick, outsider presidential campaign is a running thread throughout Nashville. The fatuous bromides and slogans coming from presidential candidate Walker’s truck that echo throughout the film could be Trumpisms, Bushisms, Clintonisms from any era.
“It Don’t Worry Me,” the theme song that pops up again and again in Nashville, plays darkly into the climax, as a plucky singer sings it to raise the spirits of a crowd at a political rally following a tragedy. It’s a rousing anthem yet it’s also a defeatist one, a song where the singer shrugs repeatedly at life’s problems because, what else can you do?
I can’t help but think it feels like a better American national anthem these days than any other:
“You may say that I ain’t free
but it don’t worry me…”