A Prairie Home Companion (2006) / Comedy-Musical
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and some sexual references
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones, Maya Rudolph, L.Q. Jones, Tim Russell
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Garrison Keillor (based on his radio program)
Based on the over-three-decades-old live variety show emanating from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, A Prairie Home Companion is first-time screenwriter Garrison Keillor's tribute to the much-beloved public radio staple he created back in 1974. The show features a variety of down-home folk and country musical acts, comedy skits, advertising for quaint but fictitious sponsors, and recurring character performances, such as "Guy Noir, Private Detective" and "The Lives of Cowboys" (featuring Dusty and Lefty). Keillor made several of these recurring skit characters (including the mentioned examples) into "real-life" people for the purposes of his film.
While the show continues to exist at the time of this writing, Keillor's script supposes a scenario in which the popular show has been given an unforeseen cancellation, making the show featured potentially the very final one to ever be broadcast. The story takes place mostly during the course of the one show, both on the stage as well as behind the scenes, allowing us to see what things are like during nearly all facets of the performances. There isn't a central plot to the film, but rather, subplots involving each of the characters get screen time, including the cancellation of the show by a Texas businessman (Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), a mysterious woman in white (Madsen, Firewall) that hovers around the production, romantic dalliances, performers rehearsing, and many other little touches. Keillor plays himself, the host of the show.
Robert Altman (Dr. T and the Women, Cookie's Fortune) directs with his trademark visually active, roving style, and the material certainly suits him well, offering a wealth of characters and conversations that Altman has a penchant for spotlighting in nearly every one of his films. Of course, Altman's style does sometimes test the patience of modern audiences, many of whom aren't used to films that have no defined plot, storylines that aren't tied up neatly, and conversations that go on at length with little or no concrete substance to the overall scheme of things. In Altman's (and Keillor's) defense, A Prairie Home Companion is, by its very nature as a radio show, about small things. It's about the out-of-the-way community folk that never grab headlines or become business leaders, respecting honest traditions and old-fashioned ways of life that aren't in step with the hustle and bustle of the modern world.
The film itself continues the tradition of the show by spotlighting the charming and colorful people, music, and comedy of days gone by, capturing the essence of Midwest Americana that largely is ignored by mainstream media and entertainment outlets. It's a place where anyone with a modicum of talent could have the stage for a few minutes, blending in to the tapestry of the finest rustic traditions, tapping in to an overall feeling that there are forms of entertainment that should be preserved, as it offers us a sense of community, history, and identity.
While A Prairie Home Companion is a comedy about the celebration of the old-fashioned, it is also a mournful story about the death of it underneath. The once very popular quartet of Johnson sisters continues with only two remaining, while the performers and audience for the acts are growing older and also dying all of the time. The impending death, not only of people but also of the show itself, is an overriding theme of the film, as those that love and cherish it are filled with remorse, and a knowledge of their own mortality of their bodies and the traditions they hold dear. An irony should be pointed out here, as "The Prairie Home Companion" derives its name from a cemetery in Minnesota -- the living embodiment of the humor, music and sentiment of people gone by.
The ambiguous ending leaves the door open for a variety of interpretations, as we know that death will strike at least one more beloved person, although we are never shown just which one it is. My theory is that it really is about the death of all of them, unable to keep their songs, poetry, humor and way of life alive in the face of America's fast-paced, business-oriented future. Without the show, the last gasps of home-spun Americana go with it, perhaps the only source of great unity and fellowship for millions of people.
©2006 Vince Leo