A Prairie Home Companion

2006-11-10 17:04

A behind the scenes look at the last performance of a quasi-fictional radio variety show that has somehow survived well into the age of television, only to be cut down by a money grubbing corporation. During the course of our evening in the Fitzgerald Theatre, where the show is performed live every week, we meet its cast of veteran performers, professionals and other misfits.

There’s the lugubrious, silken-voiced host and creator, Garrison Keillor (playing himself), who refuses to tell the audience that this is the last show. There are the angel tongued Johnson sisters, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep), who have been singing, and bickering, together there entire lives. Joining them is Yolanda’s teenage daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan). Then there’s the show’s loopy “security chief”, the down-at-heel ex-private eye Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) and a pair of foul-mouthed but good-hearted singing cowboys named Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly).

And of course there are the stressed-out souls who make sure the show actually happens, including an acerbic and heavily pregnant stagehand named Molly (Maya Rudolph). But on this last night there are two new faces. One, a steely-eyed “axeman” from the corporation (Tommy Lee Jones), is expected. The other, a mysterious figure dressed in white (Virginia Madsen) is not. She claims to be an angel, sent to collect a soul for God, and, at a time like this, an angel might be just what the show needs.


At 82 years old, and with over 40 films under his belt, you’d think director Robert Altman might be tired of the game. Yet he continues to make films with the same love and care as he always has, even if they tend to meander more than they used to. A Prairie Home Companion is one of the most warm, whimsical and affectionate films Altman has ever crafted and, while it can hardly be considered the crowning achievement of his career, it stands as a testament of his ability to conjure up a fully fledged and entirely authentic world.

He does get a good deal of help from the marvellous Garrison Keillor, the author and radio star who created and still hosts the real radio show of the same name. Of course, in reality, the show only began in 1976 and hasn’t been cancelled yet. And it’s really more of a fake show - a weekly, hour long feature that imitates the golden age of radio in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

But, fake or real, the show (as seen in the movie) is enchanting stuff. Full of marvellous singing, amusing patter and folksy adverts for ersatz products like Beeboparoobop Rhubarb Pie, the meandering, free-form show is held together by Keillor’s droll silken monotone, a voice you feel you’ll never tire of hearing. While it may be altogether too whimsical and cutesy for some people’s taste, it’s hard not to get swept away by its good-natured quirkiness. And underneath all the homespun charm is a wide streak of ironic self-deprecation which can be a little disconcerting at times, like a stately old lady suddenly winking at you.

By extension the film itself is even more marvellous, though largely because Keillor’s weekly show doesn’t have the privilege of the kind of brilliant cast that a filmmaker like Altman can muster. What’s more, as with any Altman film, you know that every one of the cast are there by choice and not just for the paycheque. Altman has long been a master of the ensemble cast, and he has lost none of his touch. The performances are almost uniformly excellent, with only Lindsay Lohan letting down the side with her closing song. How she has signed a record deal is a mystery.

Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are particularly good as the Johnson sisters. Only a pair of seasoned performers like these two could do justice to the subtle dynamics that make the roles both believable and amusing. As they bicker, finish each others sentences, and belt out classic songs, you never doubt for a minute that they are the famous Singing Sisters. But the rest of the cast aren’t far behind, with Kevin Kline giving one of the most loopy and endearing performances of his career, and Harrelson and Reilly making a delightful turn as the singing cowboys.

Despite the stellar cast and endearing material, it’s Altman himself who really makes the film tick. With his signature style of improvised dialogue, roaming camerawork and long, unstructured takes, Altman doesn’t so much create a mood or look as capture it. His films are often maddeningly random and unfocussed, but all of them have an unmistakable authenticity. Even if you don’t understand a damn thing, it all seems tangible and real, and A Prairie Home Companion is no exception.

A Prairie Home Companion is not for everyone. Its languid rhythm and whimsical contrariness will irritate people in search of the escapism of a genre film. Some may pigeonhole it as floppy, sentimental nonsense, but look closer and you’ll see that it has touches that no other living filmmaker could match. Watching the film is a little like listening to a wise old man rambling on, apparently without purpose, about the old days. Unless you listen closely, you may miss the long streaks of brilliance in what he is saying.

- Alistair Fairweather
This vintage Robert Altman tale about a folksy radio show is as warm and comfortable as a well made old shoe, but also just as threadbare.

Mark 2006/09/07 4:59 PM
A Prairie Home Companion Garrison Keillor finally makes it to the big screen. Which proves that on radio, ugly don't matter. Humour wins the day.
Paul Poulsen 2006/09/10 10:01 AM
A Prairie Home Companion Having worked in film an TV since 1970, both in SA and UK this movie broght back memories of live TV news broadcasts at the BBC and reminded me of so many people that I have known in the industry, beside for me Robert Altman can do no wrong, and with a cast like that, what can one say, but who needs Lindsay Lohan?
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