A Prairie Home Companion
Directed by Robert Altman | Picturehouse | 105 minutes
Starring: Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Maya Rudolph, Lindsey Lohan
Big city folk, by and large, do not include a radio show as part of their daily schedules as our grandparents did in the days before television. We turn on the radio, almost as an afterthought, a reflex as we battle the traffic rushing to and from work. We flip the dial around, searching for a suitable song, an update on the latest news story, or the score of last night’s ballgame. We leave it on during the day as background noise, which often barely noticeably seeps into our consciousness. The radio has become a device by which we fill in the silence, something to listen to until we can get back to a television. Be he a political analyst, sports expert, or disc jockey, when the radio announcer says, “Next hour we will discuss…” most of us lose focus, knowing that it does not matter because the next hour we will no longer be in our cars.
But in Middle America, an old-fashioned radio show is vigorously alive. Some families, eager for a respite from the obnoxious sound-bites of modern radio and the desperate housewives of modern television, sit down together on Sunday nights and listen with more than four million others to the warm voicing of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”. Friends and neighbours enjoy potluck dinners and hear the show in groups as if it were still 1940. This nostalgic, era-defying radio show is the subject of a new, richly entertaining film which bears its name and takes place largely in one evening during this real show’s fictional last broadcast.
A Prairie Home Companion, the movie, was written by Keillor, who stars as himself. Direction of this radio-to-film project is given by the steady hand of Robert Altman with the style and confidence of some of his best work. Though it has neither the grand scope of Nashville (1975), nor the narrative force of Short Cuts (1993), Altman, a hit-or-miss director, has clearly hit with A Prairie Home Companion. Those utterly ignorant of the radio show will still enjoy the film. Avid fans of the radio show, on the other hand, will likely eat potluck dinners while sitting down together to watch the DVD.
The film’s opening epitomises the incredible fact that such an old-fashioned radio show exists today. A private detective right out of a 1940s film noir and right out of the actual radio show’s regular line-up, aptly named Guy Noir and played with ample slickness by Kevin Kline, begins with a voice-over. He delivers a series of preciously typical noir-ish quips (“I was working for a radio show so old that when it started, Jesus was in the third grade.”), and we think it must be about 1943 until a crowd of people wearing jeans and T-shirts files into the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater for the live broadcast of the show. In the same way, the real “Prairie Home Companion” is a little slice of the 1940s with 2006 all around it.
Much like the recent movie Adaptation (2002) that depicts real-life screen writer Charlie Kaufman attempting to adapt the book by real-life author Susan Orleans with obviously fictional results, A Prairie Home Companion seamlessly intertwines fact and fiction: Garrison Keillor, the real life radio host of “A Prairie Home Companion” plays a man named Garrison Keillor, a radio host for a show called “A Prairie Home Companion”. Beyond this punch of “show-within-a-show” reality, a delightfully eccentric cast of fictional characters populate the Fitzgerald Theater. There are Lefty and Dusty (Woody Harrelson and John. C. Reilly), two wise-cracking, (and a tad off-colour) guitar-playing cowboys. There are Wanda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep), a pair of country-singing sisters who have been working together so long that they tell the same old stories as a team, with overlapping dialogue, so indicative of an Altman film. There is Lola (Lindsay Lohan), Yolanda’s angst-laden but respectful teenage daughter. And perhaps as a not-so-subtle reminder that this is not a documentary about the radio show, there is Virginia Madsen as a white trench coat clad angel of God, whose presence will be off-putting to some, joyous to others.
Like the real radio show, the movie trots along to the calming, melodic hum of Garrison Keillor’s voice. Like much of Altman’s work, the film does not present a structured plot, with a series of events to be anticipated and figured out, but unfolds at the pace of real life. The film is not about any thing, but about these intriguing people. We meander around on stage and back stage, catching glimpses of this character and that one in a seemingly random progression. We see entertainers who have long since abandoned any dreams of worldwide fame and fortune. They work for love of performing; they have mostly fond memories of playing and singing at county fairs, backyard barbecues and such. And the film works because these characters hold our interest. Keillor’s screenplay boasts plenty of clever, funny dialogue which is interspersed, true to the radio show, with abundant selections of fine toe-tapping folk and country music.
Some may speculate, “Is it finally Altman’s year?” He has been nominated for the best director Oscar five times previously for M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001). To this I answer that the old master will likely have to wait still longer for top director honours. A fine film, A Prairie Home Companion is neither as ambitious nor as large-scale as most Oscar winners and a nomination should be its highest aspiration. The Oscar race has just begun, of course, with the majority of the contenders yet to be released, so a clearer picture will emerge later in the year.
Within the movie, the radio show is airing its final broadcast. The business executive sent to close up shop, played by Tommy Lee Jones and known merely as “The Axeman” delivers the line which most captures the “Prairie Home Companion” phenomenon. He says, “I feel like an anthropologist who has stumbled upon a primitive people all sitting around a fire.” In real life, the radio show continues, with many people sitting around its sparkling fire each week with no foreseeable cancellation. Whereas some movies today are described as a roller-coaster ride, A Prairie Home Companion is a peaceful Sunday drive. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.