A Prairie Home Companion
2006: Robert Altman
Rated PG-13 – 105 minutes
Vault Rating: 7.5
“A Prairie Home Companion,” if you’ve never heard of it, is the last of the old-time radio programs. The long-running radio show stars humorist Garrison Keillor and makes its home at the Fitzgerald Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. Here, an odd sort of midwestern Grand Ole Opry takes place. Down-home storytelling, music and bleak Lutheran winters add up to probably the best two hours of live radio anywhere on earth.
Today’s feature in the Video Vault is Robert Altman’s fictional take on closing night for this famed show. The Fitzgerald, named for F. Scott Fitzgerald, is to be torn down by its new owner, a rich Texan who plans a new parking lot. That’s the set-up, and we mercifully don’t see much of it. Instead, the film consists almost entirely of the show itself and some goings on backstage minus Garrison Keillor’s famous “News from Lake Wobegon.”
Keillor creations like Guy Noir, Private Eye (Kevin Kline), and the singing cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) and others are brought to warm life even as the real PHC cast and crew weave their regular web of magic. You wouldn’t think it much fun to watch a radio program be produced before a live audience, but you’d be wrong.
Director Altman is the perfect director for these shenanigans, being a midwesterner himself and having a real touch for Americana. You would most surely know many of his prior films including “M*A*S*H” and, somehow more to the point, “Nashville.” Altman seems to personally know the ground that Keillor, America’s preeminent storyteller, is tilling.
Keillor’s screenplay is basically an atmospheric write-around in support of very entertaining music and short radio bits. Hell, even the commercials work, just like on the real broadcasts, where convoluted comedies end up singing the praises of ketchup or Powdermilk Biscuits (“They’re tasty and expeditious!).
Great entertainment is center stage here, as the Guys’ All-Star Shoe Band sizzles through the night in accompaniment and sound-effects veteran Tom Kieth almost effortlessly keeps up with the mostly scripted actors who are zipping through their paces. Altman, age 81, is sensible to just let the good times roll, but also adds that tiny note of bittersweet that actors, and perhaps an old director, feel at the end of a long run.
By adding a pair of thematic elements, a “Dangerous Woman” who mysteriously stalks this closing night and a Texan “axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones) who has come to pull the plug once and for all, the forces of light and shadow are made flesh and blood, lending an air of mythos to it all.
Other big names like Lindsay Lohan, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin also star, surprisingly capably, as a country gospel singing family while musical pros like Jearlyn Steele and Robin and Linda Williams, PHC regulars, flash their well honed chops. It is noteworthy that the “visiting” actors performed their various songs and routines before a live audience. This live shooting, on top of everything else, makes “A Prairie Home Companion” vibrant.
If you’ve never heard of “A Prairie Home Companion,” please feel free to curl up to this film. If you like what you see, the authentic program can be found on local public radio (WPSU-FM) Saturdays from 6-8 p.m. and Sunday from 2-4 p.m. Long may it live.
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