Masters Of Cinema #80 - Nashville - Blu-ray Review

'Altman has shown a propensity throughout his career for large ensemble casts, but in Nashville there’s a constant sense that less would definitely have equalled more'.

Structurally, Robert Altman’s Nashville consistently reminded me of an earlier Masters Of Cinema release: Federico Fellini’s Roma, originally released only a few years before Altman’s film. Both films focus entirely on their respective titular cities, and both in their own way largely avoid a conventional narrative structure, instead presenting the events of their films as snapshots brought together to create a larger cinematic image.

There’s no doubt, when looking at Altman’s film broken down into its individual elements, that this is a technically impressive film in a great many ways. The cast overflows with talented and recognisable names, and the grand vision often on show here is something at which it’s hard not to marvel. And yet, despite all of the reasons to like Nashville, I came away wishing that the film had offered something more over its sprawling one hundred and sixty minutes.

A key problem is one of development. The film proudly boasts of telling the stories of twenty four people over five days in the city of Nashville; with a central cast so big, it’s perhaps no wonder that several of the characters we meet feel just too thinly drawn to impact in the way Altman clearly wants them to. Keith Carradine’s Tom, for example, is presented as one of the most prominent characters in the film, and yet barely becomes more than a stereotypical arrogant womaniser with no reasoning or greater depth added to his personality. Linnea (Lily Tomlin) suffers similar problems, with Altman creating a potentially compelling set of circumstances for the character only to do very little with them. Others still, such as Jeff Goldblum’s unnamed “Tricycle Man”, give the sense of being fascinating personalities that we just never get the chance to meet any more than in passing. Altman has shown a propensity throughout his career for large ensemble casts, but in Nashville there’s a constant sense that less would definitely have equalled more.

Other choices that Altman makes are bold and admirable, but are also likely to divide opinion. The director’s signature multitrack recording technique is evident throughout Nashville, with music, diegetic sound and dialogue regularly overlapping to create a naturalistic feel. It’s a distinctive aural aesthetic other filmmakers would likely lack the bravery to use, but it’s also a technique that understandably may irk some viewers.

This is also a film firmly grounded in country music - perhaps a redundant statement for a film titled after and set in the country capital of America, but a fact certainly worth bearing in mind before watching. Pretty much every character in Nashville is linked to the country music business in some way, and a great many songs (most of which are impressively penned by the actors singing and playing them) are performed in full throughout. It’s another choice Altman makes unapologetically and for which he deserves respect; but if you’re not a fan of country then the genre’s unavoidable omnipresence may well create an extra hurdle to enjoying what Nashville has to offer.

Altman’s decision to provide a political backdrop to his film is one of the director’s strongest choices. The events of Nashville are framed by the election campaign of an outsider presidential candidate, the loudspeakers of a campaign truck adding political rhetoric to the background noise of several scenes. A handful of moments concerned with the lasting impact of the JFK assassination on the southern US states are also among the film’s highlights. Nashville is clearly a film with plenty to say; with greater focus on a more concentrated group of characters - even halving the number to a still sizeable twelve would likely have worked wonders - the film would have a more significant impact, one which you feel Altman's themes and ideas certainly deserve.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Nashville is released in the UK on Monday 16th June 2014

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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