A Prairie Home Companion is a live variety show that has been airing since 1974 on public radio stations across the country. It features musical performances and humorous sketches while its host and creator, Garrison Keillor, provides monologues purporting to be reports from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, MN, as well as commercials for fictitious products, the American Duct Tape Council, and sponsors, Bebop-a-reebop Rhubarb Pie.
Keillor and Robert Altman first discussed working on a fictional narrative before their mutual appreciation of the medium of radio led them to making a loose adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion. In the film, the show is only broadcast locally out of St. Paul, Minnesota, on radio station WLT, and we witness its final performance because a Texas conglomerate has bought out WLT. The result is a marvelous concert film combined with the stories of the characters behind the scenes that are both comedic and dramatic.
Altman’s trademark directorial style is perfectly suited for this film. He gets out of the way and allows the artists to do what they do best. The characters are well crafted. They don’t begin and end with the film, but have lives outside and just happened to be captured while the cameras rolled. It’s a pleasure sitting back and watching actors create, especially Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin. They are flawlessly in the moment and work together brilliantly. There might not be a better ensemble in a film this year.
The musical performances are fantastic. Those who enjoyed the Americana of the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack will surely be delighted. A number of traditional songs have been given additional lyrics by Keillor for the commercial spots. The actors sing their own songs and do very well. Lindsay Lohan’s version of “Frankie and Johnny” was a little ragged, but it may have been intentional because it worked in the context of the scene.
The quality of the visuals looks so good that I was surprised to discover it was shot on Hi-Def video. Cinematographer Ed Lachman and his team deserve kudos for their work. The ease of using multiple HD cameras to shoot a scene must make the work of Altman’s editor easier to cut scenes while characters dialogue overlaps.
The one misstep in the film is the character of Dangerous Woman played by Virginia Madsen. I understand what her purpose is thematically, but the execution of the idea didn’t work.
Fans of the radio show will be happy to see familiar faces. Keillor plays GK, a fictionalized version of himself. Sue Scott and Tim Russell play Donna the make-up lady and Al the stage manager. APHC regulars Guy's All Star Shoe Band, Robin & Linda Williams, Jearlyn Steele, and Sound Effects Man Tom Keith all appear as themselves. Three featured characters from sketches, two of which are voiced by Keillor, come to life. Guy Noir, Private Eye, played by Kevin Kline, works security backstage at the theatre. Dusty and Lefty, played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, become singing cowboys. Except for the opening and closing scenes in a diner, the film is shot entirely in the Fitzgerald Theater where the real show is broadcast from when it’s not traveling the country.
A Prairie Home Companion captures the essence of the radio show and creates a very entertaining time at the movies.
Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Garrison Keillor
Story by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZebnik