Robert Altman bids a folksy farewell to filmmaking and later life with a mix of real-life radio show, bad jokes, sweet singing, film noir weirdness, and Mid-Western cookie characters. A Prairie Home Companion is a small-town, big-heart, radio variety show broadcast live from the [F. Scott] Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul, Minnesota (the hometown of the author of The Great Gatsby).
This part-fiction film celebrates its final broadcast on WLT ("with lettuce and tomato") radio, so called because it apparently started out in the back of a sandwich shop. Believe this story if you will, but there are many other myths to come about the show's origin, perpetuated by the wily GK, the MC played by himself, Garrison Keillor, who wrote the screenplay.
What strikes you immediately about this swansong is its simple beauty. The opening shot of a rural landscape at dusk, gradually roaming towards the gloaming with the crackle of a radio in the background, searching to find that satisfying, homely station. A Prairie Home Companion is an American Home Truths (BBC Radio 4) set to music: a mix of charismatic presenting, oddball humor, and a welling of human spirit from both performers and audience.
Cut from the opening credits to an old-school American diner car. The narrating voice of Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a Walter Neff-like wise owl private detective transported from the 1940s film noir era. What the hell is he doing in this film? He must have walked into the wrong Hollywood backlot. But no, he wanders through a modern-day theatre audience to the backstage area where the performers and crew are preparing for a live musical radio broadcast. Later he's joined by an angel/femme fatale (Virginia Madsen), whom Guy Noir describes, "She had a Mount Rushmore T-shirt on, and those guys never looked so good. Especially Jefferson and Lincoln. Kind of bloated but happy." Thus the weirdness.
But the film feels like it's running live in real-time with Altman's signature ensemble acting, chaotic busyness and tumultuous-dialogue before, during and after the final broadcast. Real people playing themselves are accompanied by a superb cast including Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the singing Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda with Lindsay Lohan as Yolanda's suicide-obsessed daughter Lola, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as cowboy guitar duo Dusty & Lefty, Maya Rudolph as a beautifully sexy, pregnant stage manager, and Tommy Lee Jones as Axeman, the head of the Big Bad Corporation that has bought its way in and is going to take the show off the air.
At times this film is a musical with surprising singing performances from Harrelson and Streep in particular (if, indeed, they sang their own parts). Dusty (Harrelson) sings a dignified country version of "I Used to Work in Chicago," a filthy old rugby song ("Liquor she wanted; lick her I did") and steals most of the laughs with his buddy Lefty during their song "Bad Jokes", which features so many jokes you have to quieten yourself so you don't miss any more.
The rapport between the cast members is simply brilliant, like the neon glow from the diner in puddles that frames either side of the film, and the intrigue of Gosford Park (2001). Neither celebrity face nor person-playing-himself looks out of place. Shot the way it is, as if in real time, the 105 minutes flies by, and you wish you'd be able to tune in again next week.
Nugget: when I go, I'd want to go with the same joyful dignity as Altman does with this, his last film.