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Robert Altman's triumph; one of the best American movies of the 70s and one of the most complex, expertly constructed narratives ever. Sprawling over two and one-half hours and never flagging, it successfully introduces and exposes 24 different characters, brilliantly critiquing the country music industry as a microcosm of American society. NASHVILLE's songs, many of them written by the actors, are more integral to the storyline than is usually the case but, even if you do not cotton to country sounds, the effect is still overwhelming. Altman cuts back and forth between the characters with such aplomb that the audience never loses track of the narrative, which all takes place on one climactic weekend in the Country Music Capital of America. A huge music festival is taking place in Nashville, and at the same time a political rally is slated to promote the candidacy of the never-seen presidential hopeful Hal Phillip Walker, who leads a new entity known as the Replacement Party. Though Walker's politics are not deeply plumbed, he sounds vaguely like George Wallace did when he was running on his third-party ticket. Walker's aides, Michael Murphy and Beatty, know what kind of people the candidate appeals to, and they prevail upon several of the top country music singers to help their cause. Henry Gibson, playing a veteran performer who appears to be patterned after Hank Snow, is the eminence grise whom most of the younger performers venerate. Despite his down-home smile as he sings, Gibson is a mean, rotten, self-serving man who would sell his mother for a gold record. Also in the top echelon is Blakley, a country music queen and authentic folk artist (said to be based on Loretta Lynn, who was angry about it) who has just recovered from a mental breakdown and is teetering on the edge of another. The festival has attracted singers from all over the country, each hoping to have a moment in the sun, be discovered, and take a place in the country pantheon. Carradine is one of a trio of folk singers. He's nothing more than skin stretched over lechery and is currently sleeping with partner Allan Nicholl's wife, Cristina Raines. That doesn't stop him from plucking favors from Lily Tomlin, Beatty's neglected wife, and Chaplin, an hilariously irritating BBC correspondent who is covering the festival for the listeners in the British Isles. Blakley's first concert is a flop, as she can't handle appearing in front of a crowd after such a long layoff, and her husband-manager, Allan Garfield, tells the annoyed assemblage that she will give them all a free concert in a couple of days to make up for this one--and to keep her crown from being stolen by Karen Black, doing a posionous turn as a combo Tammy Wynette-Lynn Anderson. Beatty comes to Blakley and Garfield and asks her to appear for Walker at the rally, and she agrees. Beatty and Murphy stage a small fund-raising stag party and hire waitress Gwen Welles to sing, knowing she's so desperate for fame that they can force her to strip. (The leering men at the stag were actually played by some members of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, and they turned in a totally convincing performance.) After she finishes, Beatty vainly attempts to bed Welles. On the day of the rally, David Hayward, whom we've seen flit in and out of the film carrying a violin case, comes to the stage and shoots Gibson and Blakley after their singing has stopped the show. There are other rich characterizations: Barbara Harris, a dearranged white trash runaway out for her big break; Baxley, as Johnson's longtime cynical, bullshit mistress; Keenan Wynn as a Bible Belt family man, with Duvall as an eternal groupie; Tim Brown (magnificently playing a character based on Charlie Pride) is the black singer who has crossed over to become a success in the white world; Scott Glenn is the faithful puppy-dog serviceman who is entranced by Blakley; Jeff Goldblum is the local freak; Arkin as a chauffeur who witnesses everything; and David Peel is Gibson's son, a boy who does whatever his father asks and hates every minute of it. On top of all that, Elliott Gould and Julie Christie come in to do cameos as themselves, two movie stars tub-thumping a new project. Amazingly, the movie was shot for about $2 million in less than 45 days, with much of the dialogue improvised by the performers.