A major film by the late, great Robert Altman, Nashville follows a sprawling group of interrelated plots and characters that all have something to do with country music and something to communicate about American culture and politics in the 1970s. Real-life Nashville insiders were rumored to take offense at what they considered a negative take on their city and scene, but that takes nothing away from Altman's ability to find America reproduced warts and all within his fictional capital of country music.
Loretta Lynn's almost impossibly rough backstory became part of American folklore with the publication of her autobiography. This is the film treatment with Sissy Spacek, famously of Carrie and The Shining, starring as country legend Lynn. Coal Miner's Daughter is like a country version of Eminem's story 8 Mile, if Eminem had been born a female, grown up in the Kentucky coal fields, married at 13, and had four kids by age 20. Who's tough?
Pure Country features country superstar George Strait as a country superstar, and make no mistake: it's not a great film. It is, however, an interesting one because of the dilemma Strait's character finds himself in. Hugely successful and playing elaborately staged mega-spectacle shows complete with lasers and all manner of gimmicks, the lonesome singer longs for simpler days, times when his act was just a man with a guitar. Coming out as it did in the early 1990s, Pure Country can be understood as not just a commentary on its character's career arc but on the state of country music in general. The early 1990s witnessed the rise of Garth Brooks and arena-style country shows, and although country music could count more fans and bigger sales than ever before, there were critics who felt the music had betrayed its humble roots. Over the next decade, that sentiment would spawn a renewed interest in traditional and revivalist country styles.
Urban Cowboy is the movie that made mechanical bulls famous. It also serves as a historically relevant document of country music culture in the 1980s in a way that is not unlike Pure Country for the 1990s. John Travolta stars as a country boy on the edge of the city, working days at an oil refinery and whiling away his nights at the Houston area honky-tonk club Gilley's (an actual institution). The film is mediocre itself but remarkable for its Travolta-driven popularizing of country western joints as the next big, post-disco thing in terms of nightlife—this endorsement coming from no less a disco personality than Mr. Saturday Night Fever, mind you.
Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen tapped country super producer T-Bone Burnett to put together a period soundtrack for their comic, Depression-era riff on the Homeric tale of Odysseus. Supposedly, the Coen's were so impressed with Burnett's evocation of bluegrass and traditional classics that the film became something of a musical revue as well as a comic caper. The resulting movie is quirky and great, and the soundtrack is one of the best country soundtracks of all time.
The list of musicians who receive the Hollywood, big budget bio-pic treatment is not a long one. And the list of musician bio-pics that gross over $100 million domestically is even shorter. The fact that Walk the Line, a film about Johnny Cash, is on that list means that a whole lot of people who weren't born when Cash became famous went to theater to see his story. Interest in Cash, whose last single was a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song, clearly spans generations. The story of country: what's old is new again.