Nashville - As Seen Through Haven Hammilton

April 10, 2020

Nashville (1975), Directed by master filmmaker Robert Altman, is a film about America as seen through the lens of the country music scene in 70s Nashville.

 

Nashville, as any excited Alman fan will tell you, has not one but twenty-four main characters. Throughout the film each character's story interweaves with one another's all generally centering around an upcoming country music festival. The amount of well known actors assembled for Nashville’s cast is astounding. People like Ned Beatty, Shelly Duval, Henry Gibsons, Karen Black, Jeff Goldblum and more all make an appearance in the films windy and complex “plot”. Personally, watching Nashville for the first time was wildly confusing and disorienting. I found myself trying to pick out any individual character and provide them with a degree of importance that would elevate them to the elusive (at least for Nashville) role of protagonist. However, the more I tried to pick out a character the more I struggled to comprehend the plot. By the time the film concluded with a skyward tilt of the camera to the tune now infamous “It Don’t Worry Me,” I was utterly disappointed. Was this jumble of people and noises the masterpiece film that was promised to me? Had I perhaps watched the wrong movie? It’s safe to say that I was discouraged and annoyed at Nashville for not simply handing me the plot and message as so many modern films seem to do without indifference. 

 

Assuming I had wasted my time watching Nashville I went to sleep. The next day, the unexpected occurred. All I could think about was Henry Gibson's portrayal of the flamboyant, unsatisfied, and perpetually patriotic country singer Haven Hammilton. Thoughts about the mysterious, seemingly omnipresent, and strangely credited “Tricycle man” played by Jeff Goldblum never left my mind. So I did what only the day before I would have considered an impossibility, I sat down and rewatched Nashville. The next day I watched it again. It's safe to say after my third watch, I was a diehard Nashville fan. I was practically ready to strap on some cowboy boots, plop on a ten gallon hat, and book tickets to Tennessee. 

 

Because there are so many characters in Nashville I will be choosing one to focus on - Haven Hammilton (Mel Gibson). I don’t choose Hammilton because he is particularly prominent, but because I feel his story is representative of the collision between art, money, and politics that we see so often especially in modern America. However, let me first be clear -it is more than all right, in my opinion, for art to be political. It is only when you give up your art for a cause you don’t believe in to gain money or fame that your intentions become unjust. Throughout the story, Hammilton delicately juggles his fame, his power, his love of art, and his exuberant patriotism in the culturally radical climate of the mid 1970s. Hammilton is a self-started locally famous country singer. He isn’t famous enough that he is buying out billboards on the sunset strip, but he is popular enough that a well-versed music nerd would know his name. Because he was born, raised, and popularized in Nashville, he has a deep personal love for the city. But from the first moments, we see that Haven doesn’t just love Nashville but also America. The film opens with Hammilton in the recording booth singing “200 Years,” a passionate song about American history. In the song, he exclaims that America has “survived for 200 years” by hard work in times of peril. But the song ends at the present day (1975). Of course we know that America survived the last 200 years, but what about today? What happens now? This uncertainty plagues Hammilton’s mind. He feels that America's cultural climate of hard work and tough years resulting in honest god-given success is ending. As soon as the song finishes, he asks to do “another recording with more religious fervor.” But when they start the song again, the piano player ‘Toad’ can’t keep up. Toad is a young man of perhaps 20 with an afro and hip clothing. In his looks and his work ethic, he represents to Hammilton what he hates most -a lazy and over-privileged younger generation. He tells Toad that he “play[s] like a toad” and that he “need[s] to get a haircut” before angrily striding out of the recording studio in his iconic red white and blue jumpsuit.

 

In Hammilton's eyes, his own son, Bud Hamilton has not been spared from the plague of mediocrity that has overcome the younger generation. Instead of going to pursue his own career, Bud piggy backs off of the success of his father by acting as his accountant. Although it is never specifically vocalized (as they never speak to each other throughout the film), it can be assumed that Hammilton is frustrated with his son Bud for his lack of passion and fortitude.

 

However, the weakness that Hammilton sees in others blinds him from seeing his own hypocrisy. Throughout the film, he preaches hard work and choosing the difficult but fair route instead of the easy immoral route. However, at one point in the movie, Hammilton is at a small house party when he meets a big shot Hollywood producer Elliott Gould. Gould has 10 times the fame and fortune that Hammilton thinks he will ever have. Soon after this encounter, Hammilton meets a character named John Triplette -a campaign manager for candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Triplette explains that Mr. Walker is running for mayor and could use Hammilton’s endorsement. At first Hammilton instinctively refuses exclaiming that he doesn’t want to mix his music with politics. But when Triplette offers Mr. Walker’s word of endorsement should Hammilton ever run for mayor, Hammilton quickly accepts his offer. Why would he do this? Why would a man so obviously grounded in his principles decide to use his art form as a political pseudo-advertisement campaign? Because Hammilton, no matter how much he wishes he wasn’t, is like everyone else: human. He longs for the fame and fortune that people like Gould possess. He wants to be a household name, and he will sacrifice everything, even his principles, to get there.

 

Soon, the time comes for Hammilton to perform at the Hal Walker campaign rally. The majority of the 24 characters we have come to love (or hate) are in attendance. Yes it’s a political rally, but it’s also a performance of some of Nashville’s greatest country singers. Hammilton gives an impassioned but melancholy performance that is perhaps apt for his circumstances. Next the character Barbara Jean, who has been tricked into performing at the Hal Walker rally, goes up to sing. During her performance, a man in the crowd stands up and shoots Barbara Jean. As she falls down from the mic, police tackle the assailant. The killing was politically motivated and as Jean’s bleeding body is carried off stage Hamilton realizes the error of his ways. He laments and regrets selling his art and thus his soul to the greedy faceless politicians of his era for nothing but power and fame. As screaming emanates from the crowd, Hammilton takes the mic: “This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville! They can't do this to us here in Nashville! Let's show them what we're made of. Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!” He cries desperately to repair the damages done by this act of violence in the wake of political disunity with art, with beauty. Soon a woman rises and begins to sing “It don’t worry me” as Hamilton rides off with Jean to the hospital and the screen fades to black. 

 

Hamilton, a grass roots man, betrays his own principles and pays the ultimate price. Stories about not just America but also humanity are what Nashville is composed of. Not only are there 23 other stories about related characters going through their own troubles and triumphs, but there is also a great country music score to boot. These reasons are why Nashville is one of my favorite films of the 1970s and perhaps ever. 

 

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