It Don’t Worry Me–Robert Altman’s “Nashville” 30 Years Later

Haim Watzman

Robert Altman’s Nashville was my favorite movie when I was a college student. I saw it time after time and dragged many friends to it as well. So when my daughter, a film school student, brought it home on the recommendation of one of her teachers, I was curious to see what my reaction at middle age would be.

At the age of 19 I was very much a political animal, and I was also an aspiring dramatist. So, not surprisingly, my favorite politicians were ones that offered dramatic verve and complexity and my favorite playwrights were those who addressed politics and ideas—Shaw, Brecht, and Stoppard. For my part, I was working on a verse tragedy about Alexander Dubcek and a slaptstick comedy about Isabel Peron (this was before I’d ever heard of the asinine Lloyd-Weber hit Evita, I should stress).

In other words, Nashville was made for me. In 1975, when it came out, I’d just lived through a lot of history. A disastrous war pursued by a president who was a truly great man in nearly everything else he’d accomplished had been ended disastrously by another president whose paranoia and megalomania had come dangerously close to destroying American democracy. At Duke University, my friends on the right didn’t seem to understand what had been wrong with the war and with Watergate, while many of my friends on the left seemed to have lost their minds to totalitarian Marxist delusion. Others were simply apathetic. North Carolina had recently sent a right-wing racist demagogue to the Senate. Things did not look good.

In his film, Altman captured post-Vietnam loss of direction, angst, and apathy in as masterful a fashion as Shaw had captured Edwardian cluelessness in the face of the Great War in Heartbreak House. By using the country music industry of Nashville, Tennessee as his mise en scène, he chose a slice of America stereotypically identified as the counter-counter culture, that part of the population and the country that sought to reaffirm that America never had and never could do wrong. By focusing on celebrities, stars, and Grand Ole Opry wannabees, while throwing in a self-absorbed BBC reporter as well as a mysterious populist presidential candidate, he showed how little focused Americans were on the huge problems facing their country, and how easily they were swayed and fooled by charlatans and fakes.

Nashville’s screenplay follows a dozen story strands and a couple dozen characters as they make their way through a week that culminates in a political rally-cum-country music concert at Nashville’s nearly full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens. When I was young, it seemed like the perfect technique for this film of political discombobulation. The final scene, when the crowd at the Parthenon, having just witnessed the assassination of country music idol Barbara Jean, joins in singing “It Don’t Worry Me,” while camera turns its gaze to heaven, seemed to be a call to action against the malaise of the post-Vietnam generation.

Thirty-three years later, it’s still an impressive film, but it seems a lot thinner than it did then. The message could not be more appropriate for the society I now live in today, but at the age of 52 message is not enough. I still like the multiple story technique, but now I see its problems. No character gets developed deeply and many of their actions are insufficiently justified. We don’t really understand why Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), a sincerely religious gospel singer and devoted mother of two deaf children, decides to betray her admittedly inconsiderate husband for a one-night fling with rock star Tom Frank (Keith Caradine). We haven’t a clue why Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward) shoots Barbara Jean. What does she mean to him? When I first saw the film, I assumed that he’d really been stalking Hal Phillip Walker, the presidential candidate, but now I just don’t know.

A glaring political error that bothered me some then stands out now as an improbability that nearly ruins the film’s premise. Walker is running a third-party campaign, yet we’re told that he has won three primaries and is in Tennessee to win a forth. He can’t be a primary candidate and a third-party candidate at the same time. Altman can perhaps be excused for not understanding the ridiculous way in which his country chooses his presidents, but you would think that someone on the set would have told him that he needed to revise the script so that Walker was running either as a Democrat or a Republican.

Nashville, which was hailed when it came out as a groundbreaking, daring, innovative American film, looks three decades later very much like a product of its time. It may still pack a wallop for politically-concerned teenagers and film students, but I need more depth of character and of narrative to move me, emotionally and politically, today.

More South Jerusalem on film:

Cold Altruism: Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days”

Ropes of Fate: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Shadow Kill”

Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (1) – A National Nightmare on Film

6 thoughts on “It Don’t Worry Me–Robert Altman’s “Nashville” 30 Years Later”

  1. You’re absolutely right about Nashville. I teach film at a painfully selective national research university south of San Francisco that shall be nameless, and I can attest to the fact that undergrads still love the movie, perhaps for reasons other than yourself.

    I’ve recently returned from a conference in Mexico City, where I had a chance to see five or six new student films from the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem, which knocked everyone over. The Tel-Aviv university films have the same effect. There was a discussion about why the Israeli films were so rich in subtext and moral implications, and one of the participants pointed out that like it or not, the students were marinated in the Old Testament, which is all about strong narrative, rich subtext, and moral implications. An interesting theory. (Off-line, I’d be interested in knowing where your daughter is studying.)

  2. I like ensemble pieces like this specifically because they don’t presume to know why people do things. Character development. . . pah! Character simplification more like. Oh, his father beat him as a child? No wonder he did such and such. No, we don’t have answers in real life, why should we in this film?

  3. Though your critique of Altman’s technical naiveté re: the political process is apt, I’m a bit surprised that someone of your education does not seem to appreciate Altman’s cute contempt for many of his subjects: the apparent thin-ness of character and narrative is but evidence of the thickness of a carefully laid foundation of nauseous dread of reactionary politics (left or right). Nashville is one of the few films whose nuances outlive its broader strokes (re: time sensitive sensibility). After viewing a documentary on the uprise of the Tea Party, I wanted to rush out and rent Nashville (yet again)…just to feel some security in my own left-wing liberal foolishness again and deny the fact that the final scene of the film is not simply a 1970s morality play made by a Hollywood renegade, but a deeply comic – and terribly sad – conclusion to not just one of the key American films of the 70s but one of the greater (and unflinching) American films about the sensibility of being American itself.

  4. I didn’t see that movie as political statement and I came to like it. For me it was like a tragedy and its catharsis, it shouldn’t worry us that all political misfortune happend or why the assassin does it, it could have been someone else. The idea is that music save u the trouble of thinking too much because in real life there’s no way one can completely escape pain unless make himself an outcast. The tragedy has a hero, that through hubris bring his downfall , Altman movies like McCabe has anti-hero who is an ordinary person a coward , perhaps because today nobody believes in struggle of gods and men. In scientific area chance works everywhere and the point is “it don’t worry me”

  5. August 30 2015-we have a candidate who is going to be in the primaries and may run as an independent. We had an assassination on tv. Both are in Altman’s Nashville. The characters were as vapid as current day reality tv stars. You may want to reconsider your assessment of Nashville

    DD Webster

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