A Prairie Home Companion Review
Robert Altman's last film, A Prairie Home Companion is being described posthumously by some reviewers as a film about death. While characters do die and while the film observes the passing of an institution, a decades-old country music radio show, I can't agree with that reading. This isn't an elegy, it's one of the liveliest and most upbeat comedies you'll find. If it's about anything, I think it's perseverance - it's a tribute to singers and musicians who persevere at doing what they love even though their popularity has declined.
A Prairie Home Companion is a weekly radio variety show with a country theme that's been broadcast nationwide from Minnesota since the sixties. It's produced and presented by GK, a genial if unsentimental host played by the screenwriter, Garrison Keillor, who created the affectionately satirical radio show of the same name that inspired the film. His treatment of his own character shows a nicely self-deprecating sense of humour.
The movie goes behind the scenes of what may be the show's last broadcast. The radio station's owners have sold it to a corporation and a representative (Tommy Lee Jones) has been dispatched to Minnesota, more than likely to shut the programme down and fire everyone. Still, the show must go on. Some of the performers we see are real singers and musicians who have worked with Keillor, others are fictional characters played by the film's stars.
There are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), the remnants of a Carter Family-style singing group, who have brought along Yolanda's rebellious teenage daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan). There are Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly), a pair of singing cowboys. And there's Chuck (LQ Jones), an ageing singer who still has some lead in his pencil. Working behind the scenes are pregnant production assistant Molly (Maya Rudolph) and Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the station security manager who thinks he's Philip Marlowe, private eye, and narrates the film as if he was. There's also a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen), whose identity and purpose no one seems to know.
In true Robert Altman style, A Prairie Home Companion follows all these characters through their own separate and intertwining dramas and farces. The film gently pokes fun at everyone but it respects the performers and it respects the art of radio broadcasting. There's a great scene in which Keillor and Streep improvise a commercial for a brand of duct tape while Molly frantically searches for the correct slogan they're supposed to read out. Like The Company, Altman's ballet drama, this is a tribute to hardworking artists and entertainers whose art form isn't appreciated by most people. It's also a stab at media companies that steamroller quirky little items like A Prairie Home Companion in favour of homogenised product.
This may be tamer than many Altman movies, with a PG certificate and Middle-America-friendly subject matter, but the director's mischievous spirit is there in the details, such as the service the lady in white performs. Yolanda tells a story about the fate of the third Johnson sister that's like a poison arrow aimed at the show's church-going heartland audience, Dusty leches over the youthful Lola and in the film's show-stopper, Dusty and Lefty sing a hilariously off-colour song that has the censor tearing his hair out and had me in stitches.
Altman's having fun and it's infectious. This is a light film, a lark by the director's standards, but it's a total delight from start to finish, it's impeccably made and the acting is sublime. Meryl Streep contributes her second great comic performance of 2006, Garrison Keillor is a real find (he's best known here as the voice of some recent Honda adverts) and it's always nice to see Lily Tomlin and Woody Harrelson getting good roles.