John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

How Robert Altman Saw the Future

His film ‘Nashville’ and final song,“It Don't Worry Me,” have chilling reverberations today.

By - Nov 4th, 2016 04:26 pm
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Robert Altman’s Nashville.

Robert Altman’s Nashville.

Some artists see the future clearly. It may seem ridiculous at the time, but sure enough, we come to live in the disturbing visions they create. It’s funnier on the screen. Remember Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, where a more buff version of Donald Trump rules with iron pectorals, in the manner of his role model Vladimir Putin? I do and as I laughed at this reality TV show writ large, I never guessed it would actually happen. Small wonder the polls show about half the country is anxiously upping their Xanax dosage. Those who aren’t worried, should be.They are enabling the worst candidate ever put forward by a major political party.

This brought to mind Robert Altman’s disturbing film Nashville, which I hadn’t thought of in a long time. The usual tangle of characters and overlapping dialog, something Altman pioneered, are all there in what many consider one of his best films. The characters misbehave, stab others in the back and spend little time fretting about anything, big or small. It happens during an election year and something very much akin to the Tea Party is gathering momentum in a divided country. It’s called the Replacement Party and it’s unseen candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, is heard in ads making outrageous, Mexico-will-pay-for-the-wall types of promises. Walker (never a good name in politics) is less of a racist and xenophobe than Trump, but he preys on the uneducated, and they gobble up his collection of feel-good slogans as they wait eagerly to see him shake things up.

In its day, over 40 years ago, this movie was considered a comedy. Now, in a reversal of the classic line about tragedy plus time, maybe it’s not so funny. It’s gruesome finale involves an assassination attempt that somehow turns into a sing-along. The feel-good tune is called “It Don’t Worry Me.” It’s sung by Barbara Harris. She plays Winnifred, an on-the-make and on-the-run country singer. It happens after the shots are fired at a Walker rally as all hell is breaking loose. Someone calls for a song to soothe the crowd and she steps up, in a state of shock, to try. It starts tentatively, then chorus by chorus, she sings more confidently. As it gathers momentum, the gospel choir joins in, and it swells into the greatest anthem of apathy and triumph you’ll ever hear. It fades out on a long crescendo as the camera pulls away and sweeps upward to the heaven. Very inspirational stuff if you ignore the words:

The price of bread might worry some
But it don’t worry me
Tax relief may never come
But it don’t worry me
Economy’s depressed not me
My spirit’s high as it can be
And you may say that I’m not free
But it don’t worry me

It don’t worry me
It don’t worry me
You may say that I’m not free
But it don’t worry me

They say this train don’t give out rides
But it don’t worry me
And all the world is taking sides
Well it don’t worry me

Cause in my empire life is sweet
Oh just ask any boy you meet
And life may be a one way street
But it don’t worry me

It don’t worry me
It don’t worry me
You may say that I’m not free
But it don’t worry me

It don’t worry me
It don’t worry me
You may say that I’m not free
But it don’t worry me

© Keith Carradine/Barbara Harris

In the film, the song is first sung by Keith Carradine’s character, a country playboy who truly isn’t worried. He’s never in one place long enough to bother. When the song is taken over by Winnifred at the end of the movie it goes from personal creed to universal screed. It’s never-ending chorus seems longer than “Hey Jude” and has none of the uplift.

This overlong election ends Tuesday. Like the World Series, it’s a nail biter. But much more is at stake. Satires like Idiocracy and Nashville don’t simply appear of the blue or from some director’s fever dream, they are direct reports describing conditions on the ground. The worst possible outcome is still a possibility and, while it would probably inspire more great satire, it does worry me.

2 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: How Robert Altman Saw the Future”

  1. Let’s not forget the hedonistic appeal of “I’m Easy,” still relevant to a disinterested section of today’s electorate, also written by Carradine. I recall how — my God, 41 years ago — I gave this superlatives in reviews and endured a lot of hoots.

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    That line “And life may be a one-way street” worries ME!

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