EXTRA: ‘Nashville’ a Pain in the Neck

It could be the best movie we see all summer — even if the movie in question is 25 years old, and even if the movie did give us a (real) pain in the neck. Cinephile culture was alive and well at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills on Thursday night for a silver anniversary screening of Robert Altman’s country-fied masterpiece “Nashville.” (The event kicked off a five-week, 18-film retrospective of the director sponsored by the American Film Institute.)

For one night, it was 1975 again, with the cast and crew of the film — including screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, actors Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Jeff Goldblum and Altman himself — reuniting to celebrate (and hash over) the making of the two-and-a-half-hour epic.

Fanatical behaviors abounded: People lined up outside the Academy building more than an hour before the film started, and thunderous applause erupted during the screening every time a new character (and believe us, that film has a lot of characters) appeared.

But despite the long wait, not to mention the post-neck pain that comes with watching a pretty lengthy film while seated in an unnatural position (aka a second-row seat to the far, far left that we took as a last resort because almost two-thirds of the theater seats were blocked off from the public) — it was, we must admit, well worth it.

Shot in seven weeks, “Nashville” is a mosaic of interweaving stories revolving around Nashville and its art: country music. It’s told in a sprawling, nonlinear, noncausal manner.

And the film’s loose and seemingly random narrative structure called for a large amount of improvisation on behalf of the actors. (The lyrics to all the songs in the film were written by the actors. Keith Carradine even won an Oscar for his — “I’m Easy.”)

Robert Altman “The idea of doing ‘Nashville’ this way [through improv] … The way how it happened was that I had a film that I wanted to make, it was called ‘Thieves Like Us.’ And they [the studio] said OK only if I would make a country western for them,” said Alman in the discussion forum after the screening.

“And they had a script that starred Tom Jones. I didn’t like the script. And I said, I won’t do that script, but I’ll do a musical about Nashville. I have never been to Nashville. So Joan [Tewkesbury] and I sat down and I [told her] to go on to Nashville, keep a diary. …”

Added scribe Tewkesbury: “… And basically what you get is my trip to Nashville. There was a car wreck, and they did have a talent show in the middle of the pile of cars.”

“[And] we [Altman and I] just sit down and said, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ and ‘Why don’t you do that?’ and just kept adding things [to the film]. It became a miracle stew.”

AFI’s Altman retrospective ends July 22 with a 30th anniversary cast and crew reunion screening of “M*A*S*H.”