When list-makers get together to compile the greatest movie musicals of all time, why does Nashville almost never come up? Is it because director Robert Altman's terrific 1975 ensemble film is so many things at once, that to describe it as "just" a musical would somehow diminish its other aspects? Set over a few days in the titular country-music capital, Nashville remains the template for every major multicharacter drama that's come since, inspiring filmmakers to envision their broad-canvas movies as sociocultural studies of everyday individuals who have been shaped (some might say twisted) by their particular milieu. The risk with such an approach is that as the years march on, these sorts of time-capsule portraitures can date badly. But look at Nashville, which despite the fact that its then-timely observations on politics, popular music, war and the nation's bicentennial are now 35 years old has lost little of its satirical power. Perhaps it's because the fact that while Altman drapes his film with trappings of its era the counterculture, Vietnam, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy Nashville's undercurrents have remained relevant. We're still a nation at odds with itself between conservative and liberal values, romantic commitment and heedless infidelity, true artists and popular hacks, and those struggles within Nashville will probably resonate as long as there is an America. But let's not forget the music: Nashville has some of the most enduringly wonderful (and wonderfully awful) country songs of any film, lovingly satirizing the genre's tear-in-my-beer sentimentality while at the same time evoking the music's honest decency with real finesse. As with the cross section of humanity that it depicts, Nashville's songs are goofy, earnest, outrageous and stirring. How many other musicals can make the same claim?
Wed., Oct. 14, 8 p.m.; Thu., Oct. 15, 8 p.m., 2009