“Treme” embarked on its final season Sunday. “Smash” is gone. “Glee” and “Nashville” soldier on, but the bloom of pop-cultural significance is off their respective roses. With this age of the hour-long musical television series fast coming to a close, I set out searching for its origins, and I found it at the movies. Robert Altman’s “Nashville” (1975) may be the finest American film of the 1970s — and the first modern TV musical, too.
“Nashville” weaves a world from flats and sharps, major and minor keys, from singing waitresses, high school marching bands, and country starlets. There’s rock, folk, country, and gospel; Gwen Welles’ tinny Sueleen Gay and Karen Black’s soulful Connie White; intimate acoustic and big band bombast. Dispensing with non-diegetic music in favor of studio sessions and the Grand Ole Opry, Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury fashion a kind of “pure” musical — thanks to Jim Webb’s multi-track sound system, even the overlapping dialogue possesses a symphonic quality, always operating in several registers at once.
Of course, “Nashville” wasn’t made for television, and two of television’s most iconic series of the pre-“Nashville” era — Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” (1952-1989) and “The Partridge Family” (1970-1974) — placed music at their core. But reconsidering Altman’s film, now available in a new DVD/Blu-ray dual edition from the Criterion Collection, it seems, in the other sense of the phrase, made for (today’s) television. It’s sprawling and anarchic, shifting gears from sorrow to satire and back again, featuring so many main characters (24) and subplots that it bears more resemblance to the ensemble complications of “Glee” or the microcosmic New Orleans of “Treme” than the focused melodrama of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” You might even say “Nashville” is one long television episode. The opening titles frame the film as an infomercial promoting an omnibus album, playing “right before your very eyes without commercial interruption” as if you’d recorded it on your DVR.
If “Nashville” suggests, and at times surpasses, serial television’s rangy loose ends, television’s recent musical dramas suggest the imprints of “Nashville,” too. The band of eccentrics driving the note-perfect first season of “Glee” inhabit the fringes of the high school hierarchy as surely as L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) and BBC Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) sidle alongside country music fame. At least at first, ABC’s “Nashville” and NBC’s “Smash” aspired to a similarly detailed, lived-in authenticity, balancing the specific patois of hermetic worlds against the demands of network broadcasting. “Treme,” closest kin to Altman’s epic, blends politics and music to forge an equally ambitious, sometimes slack portrait of a city’s multifaceted melody.
If drawing such thematic connections seems like a stretch — it’s tough to imagine Ryan Murphy or Theresa Rebeck studying up on Altman while ruminating on the musical’s televisual possibilities — the fact remains that the series’ sensibilities do not reflect direct descendance from classic Hollywood, “The Partridge Family,” or “Fame.” The genre is certainly no stranger to showbiz settings, but the common thread between “Nashville” and the modern TV musical is not the backstage vibe — it’s the sense each constructs, at its most electric, of music as the root structure of the characters’ complex emotional lives rather than merely their outward expression.
All recognize that the creation of feeling, rather than its simple reflection, is what music is for: that the ecstatic brass of post-Katrina New Orleans and the ballads of the Broadway stage, the pop stylings of the music room and the homey comforts of a barroom country tune, often hide as much as they reveal. To watch as Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) falls in love with a boy he’s just met while The Warblers breathe fresh life into “Teenage Dream,” as Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee) tamps down her sadness to find the sultry, bright energy in “Rumor Has It,” is to see that musical realism demands an understanding of the well-rehearsed fakery performance requires, and how it can carry us away nonetheless. “You may say I ain’t free / It don’t worry me,” Barbara Harris’ Albuquerque sings at the end of “Nashville,” but of course it’s a lie: the moment, like the movie, can paper over its profound undercurrent of anxiety but never dismiss it entirely.
Indeed, the best scene in “Nashville” lovingly renders this tie that music forges between performer and listener — even, or perhaps especially, when the connection is more fictive than real. In a dim, smoky venue, womanizing star Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) dedicates the deliciously sexy “I’m Easy” to an unnamed paramour, and though it’s aimed at straight-laced gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), sitting dazedly seduced at a back table, three other women gaze up at Tom, longing for the performance to be theirs.
Tom and Linnea listen to it again in his hotel room that night, but the moment has already passed, even for them. Her husband and children beckon; selfish and petulant, he calls up another partner before Linnea can pull on her skirt. In this moment “I’m Easy” suddenly changes — more about disappointment than desire, more about hurt than hope — and the outside world returns in all its troubled messiness. This is what unites “Nashville” and the modern TV musical: the same old song, discovered anew.
Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is now available from the Criterion Collection. HBO’s “Treme” airs Sundays at 9 p.m., ABC’s “Nashville” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m., and FOX’s “Glee” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. NBC’s “Smash” is available on Amazon Video and iTunes.