Nashville: New Waves #17

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The question of what is the greatest music related movie is asked online regularly.

It’s tempting to answer with a film with a connection to music you love but some of my favourites feature genres that I have little or no interest in. The 2011 documentary Last Days Here tells the story of Bobby Liebling, lead singer of the heavy metal rockers Pentagram, as he battles his demons. It’s compulsively watchable but did I seek out any Pentagram music after seeing it? No.

Likewise, Robert Altman’s 1975 satirical drama Nashville is seeped in country and western balladry, the popularity of which as I’ll mention isn’t something I can readily fathom. It is, though, a great film which should appear on many more lists of best music movies. Here’s a review I wrote for Louder Than War for the Eureka Masters of Cinema release of the film in 2014.

Okay, firstly, Nashville isn’t the easiest film ever made to review – he says, getting his excuses in very early – and resides at the completely opposite end of the cinematic spectrum to the high concept movies beloved by Hollywood producers of the present day, ones that can be summed up in a single and easily understandable logline.

Sprawling and featuring many of Altman’s trademark – and for the time highly innovative – techniques such as his routine use of overlapping dialogue and improvisational shooting style, Nashville is an audacious and hugely ambitious ensemble piece with no real star unless you count the city itself.

Instead of focussing on a small cast of leads, Altman gives us twenty four main characters, whose lives we follow over a period of five days in the run up to the Tennessee presidential primary, where an unseen upstart candidate named Hal Phillip Walker of the fictional Replacement Party is attempting to record his fifth straight electoral success.

A number of themes also weave their way through the film’s very much less than straightforward narrative and Nashville can be viewed in a number of ways: as a biting satire of a country in crisis, a political parable (Nixon resigned as President during the shoot) or even as a musical, as Altman himself points out in his commentary, there’s about an hour’s worth of songs in the film.

Here I should really point out that if you’ve ever been put off watching the film due to its Country and Western backdrop then don’t be and I say that as someone who is just about allergic to the genre. Altman and screenplay writer Joan Tewkesbury weren’t fans either and on its release, the musical community of the titular city were far from enamoured of the representation of their scene which many felt the director had set out to mock.

Certainly, for this non expert, Ronee Blakley as down-home country queen Barbara Jean and Karen Black as her bitchy rival Connie White, appeared to be very convincing country stars from the era of Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, while Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a little guy with an ego the size of several Southern states, also struck me as a very plausible Mister Nashville figure with his homespun philosophies and ridiculous late Elvis style wardrobe.

Some of his material such as the jingoistic dirge 200 Years that celebrated the United States Bicentennial and the cloyingly sentimental For The Sake Of The Children do walk a fine line between pastiche and caricature, but back then at least, the latter was something that Country and Western artists weren’t afraid to flirt with. In the same year that Nashville was released, Tammy Wynette scored two huge hits in Britain with Stand By Your Man and D.I.V.O.R.C.E, the latter a song that gave Billy Connolly a UK number one single when he parodied it, although it was surely already bordering on parody even before the Big Yin got his hands on it.

Hamilton could definitely be filed under what one out of towner dismisses as country crapola but Altman was aiming for a mix of good and bad songs and Keith Carradine, who is very plausible in the role of a manipulative womaniser called Tom Frank, provided the film with a track that I found an unexpected treat: I’m Easy, a country folk number that went on to win the Academy award for Best Original Song and also reached the Billboard top twenty chart.

In fact, the scene where he performs the song with several spellbound female characters in the audience clearly under the illusion that he’s singing it to them personally is a real highlight of the movie.

With so much great acting on display, it’s almost impossible to pick out favourite performances but Lily Tomlin is superb in the role of Linnea Reese, the one woman that Tom is actually delivering those lyrics to. She’s also the wife of one heartless husband, the mother of two deaf children and a member of a large gospel choir and what makes her turn even more astonishing is the fact that this was Tomlin’s feature film debut.

Another relative newcomer, Ronee Blakley, is equally fine as the afore-mentioned Barbara Jean, whose success is the envy of many but whose mental state is at best fragile, coming over at times like a cross between Loretta Lynn and Ophelia.

Gwen Welles delivers too as Sueleen Gay, a pretend name for a pretend talent. She has delusions of being the next big thing but no Auto Tune as yet to help her out with that ambition. It’s before the age of the Wonderbra too, so to catch some extra attention, she has to make do with a pair of socks to prop up her cleavage. Today, this gal would undoubtedly dream of the chance of appearing on X-Factor; here though the only time anyone pays any real interest in her onstage is when she’s tricked into attempting to strut her stuff during what is surely cinema’s saddest ever striptease in a club full of men gathered for a Replacement Party fundraising event.

Karen Black, maybe the most under-rated actor of her era, is predictably good. Finally, a mention too for Shelley Duval, who also excels as a brazen and shallow groupie who insists on being called LA Joan, a creature with a penchant for wigs and a talent for latching on to suckers – and if she was ever to catch something rather nasty from her regular bedroom romps then you really might still struggle to work up much sympathy for her.

As Nashville reaches its conclusion, each of the characters who have been zigzagging through the storyline and interconnecting along the way, at last converge together at an outdoor concert at the city’s Parthenon to promote Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign. Some will be onstage, some in the wings and many in the audience – and let’s just say that one is never going to be allowed the chance of vote for Walker or any candidate in the forthcoming election. If you’ve never watched the film, don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling the ending for you here.

Film critics of the day lauded Nashville. ‘It’s a pure emotional high,’ Pauline Kael raved in the New Yorker, ‘and you don’t come down when the picture is over.’ Roger Ebert declared it was the best American movie since Bonnie And Clyde and it was nominated for four Oscars, including for Best Director and Best Picture.

It’s remained highly influential since its release. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia were both large cast, multiple storyline movies that clearly took inspiration from it, as did Paul Haggis’s Crash, which bagged a Best Picture Oscar win, although few film afficionados would judge it was in any way more deserving of that honour than Altman’s film. Here in Britain, Annie Griffin’s Festival from 2005 was also absolutely in debt to Nashville albeit here comedy replaced country with Edinburgh providing a memorable backdrop.

Nashville is not a perfect film. It does sag slightly round about its halfway mark and an argument could be made that Altman should have excised a couple of songs from the Grand Ole Opry show but it is right up there with his very finest works such as M*A*S*H and Short Cuts. Not only that, but in a period when American cinema was arguably at its creative peak, and intelligent and often provocative motion pictures like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver were all huge box office hits, Nashville was right up with the best of them.

If You Like Nashville, you might also like Altman’s The Player (1992), an absolute joy from the almost eight minutes long opening sequence without an edit to its final credits. Again, there’s a fantastic ensemble cast including Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi and Peter Gallagher, along with cameos from Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould and many, many more.

‘Hold the Chicken’ (Five Easy Pieces: New Waves #16)

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Five Easy Pieces

Here Jack Nicholson stars as Bobby Dupea a complex malcontent, whose personality is equally magnetic and malign. He’s a character who is hard to admire but impossible to forget and this was the performance that deservedly made Nicholson a true star.

Bobby, when the film kicks off, is working as a rigger on an oil field in Southern California with his pal Elton. On his return home, he chides his girlfriend Rayette’s (Karen Black) taste in music, baulking at the idea of her playing Tammy Wynette’s sickly Stand By Your Man yet again.

When she suggests Bobby spin the B-side instead as if this might improve his mood, he tells her: ‘It’s not a question of sides. It’s a question of musical integrity.’

Bobby will never be happy for any prolonged period. He is what would today be called a commitment-phobe. He’s also downwardly mobile – although we don’t yet know it. And I should point out that there will be spoilers in the final paragraphs of this post.

Karen Black & Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

Bobby and Ray go ten-pin bowling with Elton and his wife Stoney and Bobby gets pissed off with Rayette’s inability to launch her bowling ball in anything resembling a straight line down the lane.

Her bowling balls might veer into the gutters but Rayette is at least occasionally looking at the stars even if her dreams of becoming a country and western star are entirely unrealistic She’s naive and clingy, and she’s also far from Bobby’s intellectual equal but Karen Black never reduces her to a dumb redneck caricature and Rayette always remains much more likeable than her partner.

Okay, this isn’t that difficult. Verbally abusive on a very regular basis, he’ll pick fights or battle with not only with his girlfriend but with Elton, some cops arresting Elton, and even a noisy dog during a traffic jam on the freeway. The latter frustration eventually leads him to jump on the back of a removal wagon to get a better view to assess how long the tailback is. There he spots a piano, and he begins to play away although it’s hard to tell how good he is as his tinkling is accompanied by a constant cacophony of honking car horns.

Most memorably, he engages in a war of words in a roadside restaurant with an inflexible waitress. Although not a dramatically pivotal scene, this is the one that many viewers recall most fondly. The argument revolves around a chicken salad sandwich and ends with a brattish Bobby scattering the glasses on his table onto the floor with an angry sweep of the hand.

An angry Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

By this point Bobby has been given a family update via his sister Partita (Lois Smith). Their father is seriously ill in the aftermath of suffering two strokes.

Bobby is advised that he should see him before he dies and he reluctantly agrees, taking Rayette with him. On the road, and with some amusing consequences, they pick up a pair of hitch-hikers heading for a new life in Alaska played by Helena Kallianiotes and Toni ‘Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, You’re so fine you blow my mind’ Basil. The former complains incessantly about the dangers of dirt and when asked why she wants to move north, she replies, ‘It’s cleaner.’

‘That was before the big thaw,’ Bobby remarks dryly.

Five Easy Pieces - On the Road

On the verge of reaching his destination, he dumps Rayette in a cheap motel, presumably ashamed of her, at best figuring that she might feel out of place in the social milieu there.

Back at the family home, he hits on a musician Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), who is working with his brother Carl, played by Ralph Waite, later to be the head of the Walton clan. Indeed, Bobby spends more time in pursuit of her than in tending to his father, although he does at least share some time with the dying old man, hoping to achieve some kind of reconciliation with him. ‘I move around a lot,’ he explains, ‘not because I’m looking for anything really but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.’

The reasons for Bobby’s discontent are never explained. No flashbacks to his childhood being scolded by his perfectionist father (or similar) and if you’re looking for any explanation of why Bobby is the way he is then this is as near as you’ll get to it.

Jack Nicholson alone

He leaves with Rayette, saying goodbye only to Partita.

The film that began in an oil field ends in a gas station and the final scene is one of those endings that you desperately hope has become confused in your memory. Watching it for the first time since Alex Cox featured it in his Moviedrome series in the late 1980s, I began hoping that, as Rayette went in search of some coffee, Bobby wouldn’t have a word with the driver of a parked logging truck. That he wouldn’t step inside the truck, that instead he might get out and face his responsibilities. Head back to the family home with Rayette and, like a prodigal son, help care for his father and maybe even rekindle his career as a concert pianist.

Of course what an audience want doesn’t translate as what is artistically right.

There’s a big clue to the ending in the final location. At the gas station, a sign hangs advertising one of America’s best known oil companies, GULF. All along, there’s been too much of a gulf between Bobby and his respectable upper-middle class family for any great rapprochement, too much of a gulf between the former piano protege and the Tammy Wynette loving waitress for any relationship between them to realistically work. While Rayette is in the cafe thinking of the man she loves, Bobby sets off with the trucker to somewhere that’s ‘colder than hell’, probably Alaska.

Bobby won’t be any less restless or cantankerous there but least he’ll be clean.

Five Easy Pieces Gulf

The idea for Five Easy Pieces was conceived by its director Bob Rafelson, together with Carole Eastman. It’s surely no coincidence that Rafelson himself was born into a relatively wealthy family and also – before finding his direction – earned a living from a wide variety of jobs from breaking horses for the rodeo to drumming in a jazz band based in Mexico.

He directs his second feature beautifully. The cinematography is flawless. Nicholson is brilliant. Karen Black is also superb. Fifty years ago it might have resonated more and Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest might be better films but this is still a wonderful watch that everybody should see at least once, a key film in what became known as New Hollywood.

If you liked Five Easy Pieces you might also like Head.

Firstly – if anybody is remotely interested – my favourite group when I was a kid I’ve been told was The Monkees, although my memory doesn’t quite stretch back that far. According to my parents, I liked to argue that they were a much better group than The Beatles. All these decades later I still reckon they put out some cracking singles like Stepping Stone and Valeri – even if they might not have played all the instruments on them. The fifty-something me, though, would have to admit that they never recorded anything as extraordinary as Helter Skelter or Day in a Life.

How long my Monkee-mania lasted, I have no idea but I wish I knew if I’d stuck with both them through to the closing moments of the final episode of the series, when Tim Buckley performed Song to the Siren.

It was Bob Rafelson who initially hit on the idea of making something like A Hard Day’s Night into a madcap TV comedy show. An ersatz band was assembled, and the series proved a massive ratings winner.

After two seasons, and with the band wanting to shed their frolicsome four image and establish themselves as ‘serious’ musicians, they agreed to go further down the experimental route they’d always embraced for a film co-written and co-produced by Rafelson and Nicholson, 1968’s Head. This was a crazed attempt to deconstruct the pop band that owed as much to underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage as Richard Lester.

I wouldn’t claim that it’s a great film but it does contain some startling moments. From it, here is Porpoise Song. Dig those psych flavoured solarizations.