Today is the United States of America's 235th Independence Day. Celebrations of our nation's birth will not only see fireworks and cookouts, but also patriotic movies. AMC will host a Rocky marathon while Turner Classic Movies will show features like 1776 (1972) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Personally, I like to watch something that is distinctly American without overtly saying, “Golly, we’re wonderful!” I might pick something that celebrates rustic Americana, like Disney's So Dear to My Heart (1948), or something encapsulating our optimism and happiness, like Singin' in the Rain (1952) or The Wizard of Oz (1939). This year, however, I watched a movie with a decidedly unflattering view on America: Robert Altman's Nashville (1975).

Released one year shy of the bicentennial, Nashville satirizes country music and America’s fascination with celebrity. Over the course of five days, multiple recording stars and aspiring singers are observed and wheedled into performing at a rally for third-party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. The movie is quintessential Altman; it creates multiple characters and lets them do whatever they want, giving them a bare minimum of plot and often letting their conversations overlap.

Nashville has fun with individual celebrity types, exemplified by characters like Henry Gibson’s pompous Haven Hamilton, but it is more interested in American celebrity in general. These Southerners have excessive reactions to anyone with a recognizable name. Singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) is greeted at the airport by throngs of fans and a performance from the school band. A man is flabbergasted when he realizes the random fellow whose hand he shook is really Elliot Gould. If not for the recruiters and the campaign truck buzzing around town like a mosquito, anyone would hardly notice the candidate. Walker does not even appear onscreen, and the public only pays attention to him when the stars appear to endorse him. When this town is teeming with talent, why should a politician make a difference?

Nashville is not completely merciless about its subject. It concedes that American musicians are capable of artistic expression when they are not deified or acting like businessmen. The best example of this is the Academy Award-winning “I’m Easy,” written and sung by Keith Carradine. Carradine’s character, Tom Frank, sings it to a former lover in the audience, and while it takes two minutes to figure out which lover he means, the actress’ realization is quite touching. While much of the hour’s worth of musical performances has a sting to them, “I’m Easy” illustrates how impactful a songwriter’s message and an audience’s reaction can be. The song also reflects America’s taste in music; I’m sure almost any hit American song you can recall is about love and tenderness and is orchestrated to demonstrate those feelings.

The trouble is that not enough music is treated with such affection. Most of Altman’s characters are so self-conscious they probably have no idea what they are singing. Hamilton opens the movie recording the patriotic “200 Years,” but he does it with so little conviction that he gets distracted by any irksome detail. During one performance, Barbara Jean keeps interrupting her own vamp to ramble humbly but pointlessly (Of course, the audience boos when she is forced offstage.) In this America, music is secondary to image and personality. Music can be spiritual, but there is hardly any room for spirituality amid these inflated egos and their followers.

The most haunting irony in Nashville is in its ending. One of the singers is shot at the rally (again, the singer is the target, not the politician), and newcomer Winifred (Barbara Harris) cheers the audience up by singing Frank’s “It Don’t Worry Me.” The audience heals quickly after Winifred begins, and already the adored victim is just a memory. Here, we see Americans being content to forget disaster and not entirely caring what distracts them. The song continues well after the credits end, echoing again and again, “You might say we ain't free/But it don't worry me.” It seems not even death can faze our capacity for denial.

Nashville sounds inappropriate for celebrating America and its political beginnings, but I’d suggest it as a movie to watch if you want to laugh at our country’s ridiculousness. To an extent, can you really blame Altman for pointing out our shallowness? I know I, who have derided my own lazy outlook on politics and world news, cannot. Altman views America as a country that values entertainment over anything else (What else explains the woman vainly trying to sing at the racetrack?), and that has extended into an age where glorified talent shows are TV’s top-rated programs. We may be a great nation, but we can be really dumb about some things, and I’m grateful to filmmakers like Robert Altman for exposing it in such an artful and expressive way.


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