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‘Nashville’ and the new American musical

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Often considered one of  Robert Altman’s best films, Nashville subverts and revisits the tropes of the classic Hollywood musical through a revisionist lens. Though musicals still found success in the 1970s, the golden age of the genre was long gone and was due for a revival and re-evaluation. Utilizing tropes from classic Hollywood musicals, Nashville transforms our understanding of the genre. Altman situates the film in a contemporary setting, often negating the fantasy elements long associated with musicals. Nashville utilizes the conventions of genre in order to explore a vision of a New America and a New Cinema.

The classic Hollywood musical is very much tied to the idea of the subjective emotional experience. This is often done through the engagement with fantasy as an aesthetic choice. The subjectivity and the fantasy become a realization of the individual’s dreams and fantasies, keeping the genre in line with traditional narrative practises. This aesthetic usually incorporates musical spectacles in which people, who are not engaged with “performing” on a stage, break into song, expressing their inner desires and dreams during sequences that often break the rhythm of the narrative but progress the emotional journey of the characters. While some films, like The Wizard of Oz, will revel completely in this realm of fantasy as through the representation of the fantastic world of Oz where these sequences feel very much a part of the landscape, others are able to remain more down to earth in their representation of the subjectivity of their characters.

In movies like Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, similar aesthetic choices are applied to a far less outlandish world of fantasy. The art direction and narrative style, however, presents what is very much a subjective interpretation of the world. Rather than presenting the real Paris, the film very much suggests the impression of Paris as a city of art and love. It is a different kind of expressionism and fantasy, one situated in the heart, where songs are further expressions of themes and feelings. The film does nonetheless feature one long extended sequence that breaks the reality of the film, revelling completely in the fantasy of love and joy where the music takes over. It is the perfect realization of the Bohemian life of the artist, where love, art and song are brought to life – they are actualized through the aesthetic qualities of the film.

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Musical performance in particular seems transformed from stage to screen, as the relationship between performer and audience is lost. It is rare in classical Hollywood films that the audience remains as part of the dynamic of performance, and they are rarely even acknowledged as being active participants in the action. Hollywood removes the element of the crowd, giving even more power to the performer and individual. In the rare case in which the crowd is addressed in part of musical performances, they are often as bookends to demonstrate the presence of a stage within the narrative or active engagements with other characters.

The inability for Hollywood to acknowledge the reality of staging and performance in relation to the crowd is no doubt in part to the prominence of traditional narrative filmmaking which values the protagonist above all. It is only in the modernist period – which comes late to popular cinema – in which they are able to break from this pattern. In Nashville, Altman is able to do this in an innovative way, in part in his ability to present the crowd as being a crucial part of the performance experience, as well as showcasing the city of Nashville as being the central character rather than any of the human players. The individual within this universe has very little power, little autonomy, and is ultimately expendable. This representation of the American experience, especially of the American musical scene, is in direct conflict with the very individualist experiences of its musical predecessors. In his world, the artist loses precedence to the art.

Robert Altman does not entertain the fantasy of the musical, at least not by presenting it onscreen. In Nashville, the fantasy offered by the musical genre exists solely within the minds of (some) of the characters. The most obvious example would be the contrasting narratives of Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) and Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), the two women within the film who aspire to become Nashville stars. When Sueleen finds herself “on stage” in her green dress, ready to perform, there is the expectation as established by so many earlier musicals (the 42nd Street mantra, “you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” echoes through the audience’s mind) that Sueleen will establish herself as an untapped talent. The expectation is broken because she just cannot sing very well, but it is really the grabby audience reactions that revel in her uncomfortable strip-tease that serve to completely destroy the fantasy.

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This sequence casts doubt on the fate of Albuquerque, as her journey is undermined time and time again; she is working towards what the audience is now assuming will be a false climax. We come to believe that the musical dreams of the characters are futile, not only because they offer little promise of love or happiness, but also because they are a part of a heavily constructed corporate promise of the American dream. The fantasy and dream of happiness and love is tied very powerfully to the American dream – Nashville style, as these characters believe in the ultimate redemption of art and love. They believe that, if they work hard enough and meet the right people, they may be able to actualize their dreams and live happily ever after. Robert Altman chooses not to actualize the fantasies of his characters but rather suggest futility through musical sequence disillusionment, as well as the extremes these people are willing to push themselves I order to bring to life this fantasy.

The musical scenes in Nashville (presented on various stages) adopt an extremely realist POV and do not indulge in allowing the film viewer to forget the staginess of each performance. In particular, sequences presented in front of a live audience engage with them in such a way that the musical performance is not able to mythologized in the same sense that it would be in the classical Hollywood form. Editing structures similarly break down the illusion of allowing you to become lost in the act of performance, utilizing POV and subjectivity in innovative ways. Nashville desires to present a realistic presentation of performance. During performances, the camera positions itself in such a way that the POV is shared between audience and performer. The style mirrors a documentary approach, and is closer in aesthetic style to Woodstock (1970) than it is to previous musical films. The use of close-up is rare, and when it is used it is often through a telephoto lens, far more representative of documentary than of the intimate close-ups of the Hollywood model. This is furthered by the use of the musical set, and often musical performances within the film will include multiple musical numbers. This is a further insistence of realism, as the editing structure does not compound time but rather presents it in a realist fashion. The overall effect of this is one that challenges our preconception of the musical as the land of fantasy and myth. It allows us to engage differently with the performance as well, understanding it less as a moment of “magic” but as a combination of human factors that transcend the performance itself.

Nashville is a powerful re-interpretation of the American dream through the re-visioning of the musical genre. Altman and his collaborators recontextualize the musical in a real world through their narrative and aesthetic choices. The final effect is one that forces reflection on the fantasy of cinema and the promises of the American dream. Though the beauty of song and music remains, it becomes less a representation of subjective experience and more a tool of manipulation and deceit. This is why the film’s use of the crowd is so powerful, as it contextualizes performance as being part of a larger fabric and consciousness. The film’s final sequence, in particular, evokes disturbing allusions between celebrity and politics – perhaps foreseeing the increasingly incestuous relationship between leadership, democracy and corporate culture.

— Justine Smith


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