This morning, you could have taken everything I knew about “A Prairie Home Companion” and fit it on the head of a pin. I was aware that it was a radio program on NPR, and I had heard of its creator/star, Garrison Keillor. That’s about it. Having just seen director Robert Altman’s new film of the same name, I can’t necessarily say that I’d be more inclined to listen to the show, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it on the big screen.
If you knew nothing about the making of the movie, you’d still be able to identify it as an Altman film within five minutes. His trademark overlapping dialogue and slow camera pans give it away. This time, those techniques are applied to a backstage story about the (fictional) last show of “A Prairie Home Companion” – broadcast, as always, before a live audience in the vintage Fitzgerald Theater. The program is a combination of folksy music and down-home humor. Word has trickled down that the theater has been sold to new owners, who plan to demolish it. The show, now homeless, will have to go off the air.
When they aren’t onstage performing, the cast laments the end of the road for “A Prairie Home Companion.” Those cast members include a singing sister act (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), Streep’s death-obsessed daughter (Lindsay Lohan), two crooning “ranch hands” (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and, of course, host GK (Keillor, who also wrote the screenplay). Among this group are two outsiders. One is a security guard (Kevin Kline), who seems to have stepped right out of a 40’s film noir, and the other is a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen) who claims to be an angel.
That last bit of information is especially important, as death is a big theme in the movie. Dangerous Woman (as she is referred to) represents not just the death of a person, but also the death of an era. A Prairie Home Companion is really about how a particular style of radio broadcast has died. Gone are the days when families would gather around the radio and listen to a show like this. As one character says, radio has become nothing but “people screaming at you or a computer playing music.”
It’s worth noting that the film has no plot. None whatsoever. Really, I mean that. It is structured to be more like a series of little behind-the-scenes and onstage vignettes. But that doesn’t matter too much because this approach really helps convey Altman and Keillor’s sense of nostalgia for old-time radio. More important than plot is making us feel like we’re part of the show, experiencing the mixed emotions that come with a final broadcast. We see the acts perform, we eavesdrop on the backstage chatter, we witness little personal dramas that spring up. And we realize that shows like this are dinosaurs, which is kind of sad because they are performed with love and passion.
There’s something about this theme that really struck a chord with me. In addition to this website, I do movie reviews for a Pennsylvania radio corporation. The company I work for – which operates five different stations – is family-owned. At a time when conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus are homogenizing radio, I can relate to the movie’s desire to celebrate honest-to-goodness personality on the airwaves. The whole concept of your completely “local” radio station is quickly vanishing.
So death is a motif in A Prairie Home Companion, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t laughs. There is a very funny sequence in which a poor sound guy attempts to keep up with the performers as they ad lib a wild story. Even better is a song called “Bad Jokes,” sung by Harrelson and Reilly. The tune finds them trading off-color gags, most of which are hilarious (and perhaps not printable here).
The whole cast is really wonderful. Altman is known for assembling large groups of actors and mixing them together. Some of the highlights include the brilliant physical comedy of Kevin Kline, the humorous chemistry of Streep and Tomlin, and the subtle menace of Tommy Lee Jones, who plays “The Axeman” – i.e. the guy who comes to close the show down.
A Prairie Home Companion is obviously going to have appeal to fans of the NPR show. Hopefully, others will give it a try as well. This is a sweet movie that celebrates a style of entertainment that isn’t really around anymore. Shows like this may be all but extinct, yet this film honors their memory.
( out of four)
A Prairie Home Companion is rated PG-13 for risque humor. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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