Director Robert Altman made more than thirty feature films and dozens of television episodes over the course of his career. The Altman retrospective currently showing at MoMA is a treasure trove for rediscovering Altman’s best known films (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park) as well as introducing unreleased shorts and his little-known early work as a writer.
Every Altman fan has her or his own list of favorite films. For me, Altman’s use of music is always so innovative, original, and unprecedented that a few key films stand out from the crowd based on their soundtracks. Here are my top five Altman films based on their soundtracks:
1. Gosford Park (2001): The English heritage film meets an Agatha Christie murder mystery, combining an all-star ensemble cast and gorgeous location shooting with a tribute to Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Jeremy Northam plays the real-life British film star and composer Ivor Novello. Watch for the integration of Northam/Novello’s live performances of period songs with the central murder scene, in which the songs’ lyrics explain (in hindsight) who really committed the murder, and why.
2. Nashville (1975): Altman’s brilliant critique of American society in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Nashville stands as an excellent example of “Altmanesque” filmmaking, in which several separate story strands merge in the climactic final scene. Many, although not all, of the songs were provided by the cast, which includes Henry Gibson as pompous country music star Haven Hamilton, and the Oscar-nominated Lily Tomlin as the mother of two deaf children drawn into a relationship with sleazy rock star Tom Frank (Keith Carradine, whose song “I’m Easy” won the film’s sole Academy Award).
3. M*A*S*H (1970): Ok, I will admit it. It took me a long, long time to appreciate M*A*S*H. Growing up in 1970s Toronto, I couldn’t accept Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John — familiar characters from the weekly CBS TV series (but played by different actors). Looking back, I realize that M*A*S*H really did break all the rules of filmmaking in 1970, not least of which because it appealed to the anti-Vietnam generation. Like so many later Altman films, what appears to be a sloppy, improvised, slap-dash film is in fact sutured together through the brilliant, carefully edited use of Japanese-language jazz standards blared over the disembodied voice of the base’s loudspeaker.
4. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971): Filmed outside of Vancouver, Altman’s reinvention of the Western genre stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. The film uses several of Leonard Cohen’s songs from his 1967 album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, allowing the songs to speak for often inarticulate characters. Watch for how the opening sequence, showing Beatty/McCabe riding into town, is closely choreographed to “The Stranger Song” as is Christie/Miller’s wordless monologue to “Winter Lady” later in the film — all to the breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked with Altman on Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973) as well.
5. Aria (segment: “Les Boréades”) (1987): Made during Altman’s “exile” from Hollywood in the 1980s, this film combines short vignettes set to opera excerpts by veteran directors including Derek Jarman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Julien Temple. Altman’s contribution employs the music of 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The sequence was a revelation to me personally, since it contains the only feature film documentation of Altman’s significant contributions to the world of opera. One of the first film directors to work on the opera stage, Altman directed a revolutionary production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s: the work was restaged in France and used for the Aria Later, Altman collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize winning composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein to create new operas (McTeague, A Wedding) for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Rounding out the top ten would be Short Cuts (1993), Kansas City (1996), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Popeye (1980) — Robin Williams’ first film, and definitely an off-beat but entertaining musical.
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