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A Prairie Home Companion

For the past 30 years, public radio listeners have been enjoying the variety show "A Prairie Home Companion," a friendly mélange of music and comedy hosted by laconic writer Garrison Keillor. Sponsored by the fictitious product Powdermilk Biscuits ("made from whole wheat raised in the rich bottomlands of the Lake Wobegon River valley by Norwegian bachelor farmers"), the two-hour weekly shows are recorded live on Saturdays before an enthusiastic audience, usually from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., although the production occasionally hits the road and broadcasts from other cities around the country. The charm of "A Prairie Home Companion" is in its reliability — listeners know exactly what they'll get each week, with the format combining Keillor's home-spun storytelling, musical guests of the Emmylou Harris/Alison Krauss/Nickel Creek stripe, and a number of recurring comedy bits. Besides the ads for Powdermilk Biscuits and other made-up sponsors (Bertha's Kitty Boutique, Be-Bop-a-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery have also "sponsored" the show), there are segments devoted to "Guy Noir, Private Eye," spots for the Ketchup Advisory Board, and "The Lives of the Cowboys," about a pair of self-analyzing cowpokes named Dusty and Lefty. The show has been on and off the air (Keillor "retired" from radio in 1987 to live in Europe, only to return two years later) and a 30th anniversary show was filmed for television in 2004. The following year, director Robert Altman began filming what was then called The Last Broadcast, a fictional film about "A Prairie Home Companion," scripted by Keillor and filmed at the Fitzgerald Theater. After an enthusiastic bidding war, the New Line/HBO distribution company Picturehouse won the rights to release the picture, changing the title to A Prairie Home Companion in order to capitalize on the very familiar name.

Altman's film is a sort of bizarro, alternate-universe version of Keillor's radio show, presenting it as a long-running local production that's about to close shop because the Fitzgerald Theater has been sold, soon to be leveled to make way for a parking lot. Keillor, playing himself, bumbles blithely along backstage, telling long-winded stories as he's herded from place to place by his very pregnant assistant (Maya Rudolph) while the other members of the cast go about the business of putting on a show — the musical sister act Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin) reminisce endlessly about their family history while getting ready in their memento-packed dressing room, cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) trade wisecracks and off-color jokes, and security man Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) puzzles over a mysterious woman in a white trench coat (Virginia Madsen) who may be an angel. In classic Altman fashion, the details of their lives and connections peeks through at unexpected moments — onstage, doing an ad for duct tape, Yolanda's resentment over a long-ago love affair with Keillor bubbles hilariously to the surface, and her death-obsessed daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan) proves herself to be an apple that's fallen quite close to the family tree. Throughout, death is presented not as a tragedy nor as the glamorous spectre of Lola's poetry, but as the natural order of things — nothing lasts forever, and no matter how we rail against the darkness, it'll get us in the end.

*          *          *

A Prairie Home Companion was an interesting choice for Altman to make in his twilight years, being a film overwhelmingly about death. At 80, with a ten-year-old heart transplant behind him, death is undoubtedly a subject that crosses Altman's mind now and again — for insurance purposes, director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love) was brought in as an assistant/backup director just in case of… well, you know. The pairing of Altman and Keillor is a natural, though, with both of them obsessed with the minutiae of everyday life, delighting in the humor found in mundane situations. And both are artists who inspire either passionate adoration or intense loathing of their work — just as there are people who can't stand Altman's pictures, there are those who find Keillor's particular brand of folksy entertainment to be corny and overly sentimental. Whether the film works for people who aren't admirers of both is the question — fans of Keillor's radio show may be puzzled by Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue, the lack of a linear storyline, and Keillor's interesting omission of any mention of Lake Wobegone in the movie. Altman's admirers, on the other hand, will note that while he's made another ensemble, behind-the-scenes film here, it's a trifle compared to the political and emotional punch of Nashville or the sharp crackle of The Player and Prêt-à-Porter. But for fans of both men, A Prairie Home Companion is a delight — a gentle, thoughtful, warm visit with people who are passionate about what they do — both the characters on screen and the actors who play them, all of whom appear to be having a very, very good time. It's a lovely tribute to a radio program that's become a national treasure, made by a director who's of no small stature himself, and well worth seeing by anyone who's spent a Saturday afternoon being entertained by one, or both, of these masters.

New Line Home Entertainment's DVD release is a nice package offering a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of the film, which was shot on digital video. The picture quality suffers a bit from the usual drawbacks of DV — it's a little too soft at times, figures get slightly blurry if they move quickly (whether because Altman knows that's a problem or just due to the nature of the story, there's not a lot of rushing around, though) and some of the darker scenes are a bit murky. The audio, offered in either DD 5.1 or 2.0, is excellent, employing the surround track in clever and surprising ways, using the side and back channels for smaller ambient sounds and then springing boldly to life during the musical segments. Extras include a charming, anecdote-filled commentary track by Robert Altman and Kevin Kline, extended musical performances (24 min.), full versions of the fake radio ads (5 min.), a "making-of" featurette called "Come Play With Us" (50 min.), and a preview of the musical numbers that appear on the soundtrack. Keep case.
—Dawn Taylor

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