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Nashville review – Altman’s heartbreaking grail of 70s Hollywood

An excellent 4K restoration of the ensemble drama brings greater clarity to the director's trademark overlapping dialogue

Bigger than any one person, bigger than its city setting, and almost bigger than the cinema screen itself, Robert Altman's Nashville is a towering ensemble piece that shows the failure of individualism to do more than ripple like the wind blowing across an American flag. And yet watching this divisive, almost three-hour 1975 film – back at the BFI with a new 4K restoration – is something of a breeze.

Nashville doesn’t deliver plot so much as it drip-feeds character – and with twenty-four “leads,” there is perhaps little sense in giving the reader the rundown. An obligatory attempt: Hal Phillip Walker, swamp-draining outsider presidential candidate, has just landed in Nashville, Tennessee. But we won’t see him. Instead, political consultant Triplette (Michael Murphy) and philandering lawyer Del (Ned Beatty) gear up for a huge fundraising event, which they hope will drive the common man to Walker’s student-run “Replacement Party.” As they chase local Country acts like flailing Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) and cunningly ambitious Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), some of the city’s most glittering stars, groupies, hangers on, and other hapless victims of circumstance get pulled into the orbit of what becomes a firecracker event.

With cars filled with film stars chasing out of Nashville airport, the film opens like an episode of Wacky Races. And the zany, carefree colours of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon are all over this 4K restoration, emphasising the sparkles of sequins, the textures of walls and lampshades, and Shelley Duvall's extravagant hairpieces. It’s a necessary restoration, particularly in the clean sound mix, which makes Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue easier to parse than in previous versions. Information is delivered at such a dense rate that it often feels chaotic. Within a single song (there is over an hour of on-screen performance), every cut to a crowd reaction moves along a character’s emotional arc. When Keith Carradine’s lothario Tom sings “‘I’m Easy,” for which he won an Oscar, three women interpret the love song as directed to them, witnessed in the course of a few well-placed zooms.

“You can throw away your scripts. You won't need them,” Altman supposedly announced the night before shooting. But Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay provides a glorious frame for the anarchy. The sustained atmosphere of looseness hides the sheer precision and elegance with which the film unfolds. Jeff Goldblum’s loopy, silent motorcyclist is there for no reason but added seasoning, a visual aid to drag the audience from one loosely connected shot or scene to the next. Our eyes follow him, and never question where he takes us. From the mirroring of characters, who may repeat or trade a few recognisable gestures, Altman layers conflicting conclusions about his characters, and ultimately myriad political readings.

The film’s savaging of individualism, from Geraldine Chaplain’s pretentious BBC reporter to Lily Tomlin’s kind but privileged housewife, isn’t mean-spirited, but it has a cumulative feeling of devastation. As it asks what we fight for, how we push against the tide, and how the powerful invisibly pull the strings, one might read Nashville’s collection of tragic figures as the matter of deeply cynical and conservative film that glob onto the inherent malaise of the 20th century. Or, you could see the opposite, its vast crowd scenes as a hopeful vision of the American melting pot. Either way, for Altman, celebrity is the most powerful currency in America, as we see slimy citizens turn on a dime the second they realise they’re in the presence of a movie star (Julie Christie and Elliott Gould both make hilarious cameos).

That flippancy has left some younger viewers antagonistic towards Nashville. Less inviting than the likes of The Long Goodbye, and with music that’s intentionally mediocre and corny (but which nonetheless reveals character with each note), the film’s reputation has suffered. Bloated and ambitious, and tied together with nothing but its own style, the many mysteries of Nashville are buried deep within the sound mix and naturalist performances. But hide yourself away in the cinema and you will find this is an endlessly generous, funny, and heartbreaking grail of 1970s Hollywood.

The new 4K restoration of Nashville is showing at the BFI from 25 June.

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