Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
The final scene of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville belongs to the transient wannabe singer Albuquerque, played by the late Barbara Harris. Up to that point, the storyline has followed numerous musician characters who are striving to get discovered or bolster their existing stardom but give little consideration to what they’re actually capable of offering the world as performers. They’re ultimately brought together by a rally for a populist political candidate. After one of the headliners, the beloved country queen Barbara Jean, is gunned down on stage, her injured duet partner Haven Hamilton is led away pleading for someone else to step up and sing. None of the other big-name performers on the bill seem immediately up to the task, so the microphone lands in the hands of Albuquerque, whose torn pantyhose and miniskirt fashioned from quilt scraps make for shabby, unprofessional-looking stage attire next to what even the bohemian acts are wearing.
She seizes her chance,
timidly at first, as though she’s singing to herself and expecting to be shooed
off at any moment, then grows more emphatic. “C’mon, everybody sing!” she
implores. As she sings harder, her shoulders jerk with the effort of forcing
air out of her chest. She reverses a familiar display of appreciation between
audience and performer; instead of receiving a bouquet from an adoring fan, she
scoops up individual roses, previously cradled in the arms of Barbara Jean and
now strewn around the stage, and tosses them to the crowd.
Just as notable as the
riveting way that Harris plays Albuquerque’s in-the-spotlight transformation is
the character’s actual delivery of the song “It Don’t Worry Me.” Her phrasing
is slurred and slippery, and her wild, fluttery vibrato darts around like a
deflating balloon, hitting the occasional curdled note. The approach is far
closer to Janis Joplin’s caught-up blues-rock wailing than the rock-conversant
female country voices who were enjoying success around the time the movie came
out (see: Tanya Tucker), and considerably more unhinged than the
singing of Barbara Jean, played by Ronee Blakley, who displays emotional
fragility but performs with the composure of a soft-rocking folkie.
There were numerous layers
to what was captured on camera, most of them intended, like the chaotic, collaged effect of Altman’s ingenious
technique of sweeping across a panorama of disconnected dialogue. But he may not have foreseen all the ways
that his musical and directorial choices would interact with Nashville’s
musical conventions. Regardless, it all contributed to the significance and
complexity of the final document. Throughout the film, the songs serve as a
narrative device, helping flesh out characters’ perspectives, moving the
storyline along and steadying it.
“Altman had a provocative way of wading directly into the cultural tension between country music and folk.”
“What’s presented as a momentous musical moment is really the equivalent of a shrug.”
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