Where the ABC drama Nashville tries to provide an insider’s view of the country-music scene — albeit one tumbling with more suds than an overloaded washing machine — Robert Altman’s ’70s masterpiece of the same name has more of a tourist’s eye. Nashville (1975, 2 hrs., 40 mins., R) never tries to explain its milieu to you. It’s content just to watch it from a distance, examining the musical mecca with the same anthropological gaze Altman would later turn on Hollywood in The Player.
“Altmanesque” is one of those annoying adjectives (like “Kafkaesque”) that rarely clarify anything. It’s generally used to describe large, multifaceted narratives with ensemble casts like Magnolia, Crash, and even Love Actually, a diffuse style of storytelling more akin to what we’ve come to expect from television, which is the medium where Altman cut his teeth. But that definition ignores the most crucial aspect of Altman’s trademark: the atmosphere. Nashville, like much of the director’s best work, has the texture and flow of reality, democratically overlapping multiple conversations into chatty soundscapes and following its army of characters as their paths entwine and intersect. There are moments that are tender (Lily Tomlin with her deaf children), heartbreaking (Keith Carradine singing the Oscar-winning “I’m Easy” to three different girls at once), and hilarious (Geraldine Chaplin as a BBC reporter with a perpetual case of foot-in-mouth disease). The film has now been given a Criterion release worthy of Altman’s strongest work — with EXTRAS that include an intriguing new documentary. This is a classic that’s all Southern twang and ironic tang. A