Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Nashville: Special Edition (1975)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - The Home of Country Music

Robert Altman's Nashville is an explosive drama and a human comedy that delineates and interweaves the lives of 24 major characters during five days in the country music capital of the world. Although its setting is Tennessee, Nashville is a much broader vision of our culture, a penetrating and multi-level portrait of America at a particular time and place. Five Academy Award nominations including Keith Carradine's Oscar-winning song "I'm Easy."

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown, Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin
Academy Awards: Won for Best Song-"I'm Easy". Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actress-Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin, 1976.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 17 chapters; rated R; 160 min.; $29.99; 8/15/00.
Supplements: Exclusive Interview with Director Robert Altman; Audio Commentary By Robert Altman; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/C+

After I watched Nashville, I tried to think of another film with an ensemble cast that even remotely rivaled the size of its group. While I'm sure there's one out there somewhere, I couldn't recall it. Tarantino offered a pretty big crew in Reservoir Dogs, but it doesn't compare with the 24 characters Nashville touts.

However, that number is a little deceiving, because it implies that all 24 roles receive equal treatment, and that's far from the truth. Although Nashville features no true leads, it's clear that some parts are favored above others; many of those 24 characters are barely acknowledged through the course of the film. Many films feature 24 - or more - roles and don't make it out to be a big deal, unlike the pronouncements that Nashville concerns 24 "major" characters.

The only unique aspect of this movie is that it does follow the different roles; while other pictures include that many parts, most of those participants appear in one or two scenes then are gone. After all, it's not like we consider Greedo to have a major part in Star Wars, even though he has more to do than many of the characters here; if he didn't get fried and he continued through the rest of the film - even in a very limited capacity - I guess you could make a different argument, and that seems to be the point made by the otherwise-illogical "24 major characters" statements.

Despite that somewhat misleading bit of accounting, it remains true that Nashville does feature a larger main cast than just about any other movie, and it also lacks any true leads. While a few of the parts receive more screen time than others, there's no characters I would call the main focus of the film.

That's both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, I found it interesting to see a movie with such a large and varied cast that truly didn't favor anyone in particular. It's as democratic a film as you'll find, and one would assume that the broad nature of the group means there's something for everyone; at least you don't become tied down to one or two characters you may not like.

On the other hand, the variety means that the roles are not explored with anything that even remotely approaches depth. Nashville is a scattershot film and much of it was improvised. That shows throughout the movie as it doesn't present much of a coherent plot, and lots of the dialogue seems unpolished and stiff.

Fans of the piece would argue that's what makes it great; the natural flow of the piece comes across as more real than the average film. I don't doubt that Nashville must have seemed very fresh and new when it appeared in 1975; it used a form of "guerrilla filmmaking" that departed strongly from the norms, and director Robert Altman really tried to get a documentary feel to the whole thing. For the most part, he succeeds in that way, but I don't think the movie as a whole stands up very well. It's more of a cool experiment than it is a compelling piece of work.

I think Nashville fails to be a great film mainly because it lacks depth. With so much happening, there's never enough time to explore anything in detail; Altman's ambition outstrips his abilities. I get the feeling that many of the movie's fans are those who saw it when it premiered 25 years ago; the impact the film made must have been tremendous. However, what seemed creative and clever then doesn't necessarily feel that way now, and that's why I don't think it's a terribly interesting picture.

To be certain, I didn't exactly dislike Nashville, as it offered enough to keep me interested. However, my curiosity about the characters and the events never really went anywhere, which is kind of like the story itself; it just meanders along until a semi-abrupt conclusion. The film seems to think it has some sort of grand point to make, but if that occurred, I missed it; there's some semblance of a thesis about fame and America, but it's not well thought-out and it becomes jumbled in the mish-mash of events.

Nashville deserves respect as a pioneer. Altman showed that movies didn't have to be as cut-and-dried as one might think, and that events can be depicted in a seemingly-illogical or haphazard manner and still work. He started a form of filmmaking that has been well-executed by later talents like Quentin Tarantino and P. T. Anderson. However, the big difference between their works and Nashville is that their movies had stories, well-drawn characters, and compelling dialogue and situations. Nashville lacks all of those things. As such, I regard it as a seminal work but not a very interesting one in this day and age.

The DVD:

Nashville appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it shows its age at times, for the most part the movie presents a very nice picture.

Sharpness usually is pretty clear and solid, with very little of the movie seeming hazy or soft, though the general thick look of the era's film stock does make it appear a bit tentative at times. I noticed virtually no problems with moiré effects or jagged edges, and the artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion were minor. Print flaws also presented very few issues. I saw light grain at times, plus occasional speckles and a streak or two, but there're very few concerns, especially considering the age of the material.

Colors are generally decent but unspectacular. They seemed adequately saturated but could appear somewhat faded and bland; I didn't think the hues were a detriment, but they lacked boldness. Black levels appeared appropriately dark, but shadow detail was a bit excessive through much of the movie. This seemed most apparent during nightclub scenes and really takes its toll on the black actors, who are almost invisible in the murk. Enough of the film looks very good for it to merit an overall grade of "B-", but there are some definite variations of quality within that spectrum.

Relatively strong is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Nashville. The remix takes the original stereo mix and broadens it to a degree. For the most part, the image sticks fairly close to the center channel, with the majority of the audio emanating from there. However, it can spread nicely to the sides, especially in regard to the music, which presents some fine stereo separation. Effects and even a little dialogue also appear in the side speakers at times, with occasional decent panning between them. The surrounds generally present reinforcement of the front channels, but they do so effectively, especially the way they offer an echo of Walker's many political appeals.

Quality is inconsistent but acceptable. As is usually the case with older movies, the dialogue fares the worst; it often seems thin and flat, though it largely sounds intelligible. Whatever problems I had understanding the speech mainly fared from the many scenes with overlapping dialogue; the complexity of the situations contributed to this factor, not the actual quality of the material.

Effects are generally a bit bland and reedy as well, but they seem acceptably clear considering the age of the recording. It's the music that definitely fares the best, as most of the songs sound rich and clear. There's a little thinness to them because of age, but for the most part they appear fairly dynamic and crisp, with some good low end at times. Without the strong quality of the music, this would remain a fairly average soundtrack, but the tunes elevate my grade to a solid "B".

Nashville includes a few decent supplemental features. Most significant is a running audio commentary from director Robert Altman. Unfortunately, this is a fairly spotty track that lacks a great deal of compelling information. Altman provides a pretty basic telling of the making of the film but it doesn't include much depth. Mostly he talks about the loose nature of the production and relates how some of the actors got their roles, but he doesn't say much more than that. The commentary suffers from a pretty high number of blank spots as well. For dedicated fans of Nashville, the track merits a listen, but while Altman provides a few good nuggets of information, the commentary seems rather frustrating much of the time.

Somewhat more satisfying is "A Conversation With Robert Altman". This 12-minute and 25-second interview program repeats a lot of the information found in the audio commentary, but it presents the material in a more coherent and "user friendly" manner. Altman mainly discusses the cast and some of the basic facts about the film. I still don't know much about the making of the movie, but at least this piece was less frustrating than the commentary.

Finally, the DVD includes the original theatrical trailer for Nashville. I wish I'd watched this before I took in the movie as it does an excellent job of delineating the characters and setting up the various situations; it makes some of the memorization involved with viewing Nashville less of a chore and somehow manages to avoid any spoilers.

Nashville maintains a reputation as a classic, but I honestly don't think it deserves it. Yes, the film was groundbreaking, but it's simply not very well-structured or interesting. I enjoyed the movie to a mild degree, but it seemed too consumed with juggling 24 characters; not enough thought was given to creating a coherent, polished piece of work. The DVD features pretty good picture and sound, and it also includes some decent extras. Although I didn't like the movie very much, because I recognize I'm in the minority on this one, I'd recommend it as a rental; the picture seems different enough to warrant a look.

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