It all began because United Artists wanted to make a country & western musical film (preferably starring Tom Jones) to help promote its new record division. But director Robert Altman — who had a development deal with UA and considerable clout after M*A*S*H, the second-highest-grossing film of 1970 — wanted to make a movie about Depression-era bank robbers. So Altman reportedly agreed to make the movie the suits wanted if he could make his (it became 1974’s Thieves Like Us). By the time Altman delivered the unconventional Nashville — which opened on June 11, 1975 — to Paramount (UA had pulled out of the project), it was like nothing studio execs had seen before.
There was no real leading role: Instead, Altman cast 24 performers (none of whom were Tom Jones) in roughly equal parts. The story didn’t have much structure; the film simply followed its characters around the country-music capital as their lives intersected. And instead of using UA recording artists, Altman had his mostly nonmusical actors write and perform their own songs.
So why did Nashville turn out to be a masterpiece? Because it was filled with brilliantly inventive sequences, like the interlude that comes toward the end of the film. A talented but shallow hunk performs a tender love song in a crowded nightclub. In the audience are four women with whom he is involved, none of whom initially know about the others. At the same time, across town, a talentless waitress is singing at a political fund-raiser. When a star-making opportunity is fraudulently dangled in front of her, she is manipulated into a humiliating striptease for the drunken crowd. In eight minutes of music, nearly a dozen relationships between the film’s main characters are changed.
”It was the most difficult, most complex film I had done up to that point,” Altman recalls. ”It was basically a political film, disguised as a movie about country music.” The film resonated powerfully with both audiences and critics. Nashville was Altman’s biggest hit since M*A*S*H, and the film earned five Oscar nods, including Best Picture and Best Director, and took home a statuette for Keith Carradine’s song ”I’m Easy.”
In one sense, though, Nashville’s moment wouldn’t arrive for years. It predicted, among other things, loopy populists as third-party presidential candidates, the rise of the New South, the convergence of country music with mainstream pop, and the increasing sameness of politics and show business. ”The film was supposed to be a satire, not a picture of the real world,” Altman says. ”If I really had any idea how bad things were going to get, I’d have left the country years ago.”