A Prairie Home Companion
Director Robert Altman and writer Garrison Keillor join forces with an all-star cast to create a comic backstage fable, “A Prairie Home Companion,” about a fictitious radio variety show that has managed to survive in the age of television.
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin star as the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda, a country duet act that has survived the county-fair circuit, and Lindsay Lohan plays Meryl’s daughter, Lola, who gets her big chance to sing on the show and then forgets the words. Kevin Kline is Guy Noir, a private eye down on his luck who works as a backstage doorkeeper, and Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are Dusty and Lefty, the Old Trailhands, a singing cowboy act. Add Virginia Madsen as an angel and Tommy Lee Jones as the Axeman and Maya Rudolph as a pregnant stagehand and Keillor in the role of hangdog emcee, and you have a playful story set on a rainy Saturday night in St. Paul, Minnesota, where fans file into the Fitzgerald Theater to see “A Prairie Home Companion,” a staple of radio station WLT, not knowing that WLT has been sold to a Texas conglomerate and that tonight’s show will be the last.
Shot entirely in the Fitzgerald, except for the opening and closing scenes which take place in a nearby diner, the picture combines Altman’s cinematic style and intelligence and love of improvisation and Keillor’s songs and storytelling to create a fictional counterpart to the “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show. The film uses the musicians and crew and stage setting of the actual radio show, heard on public radio stations coast to coast for the past quarter-century (and which, in real life, continues to broadcast). The result is a compact tale with a series of extraordinary acting turns, especially Kevin Kline’s elegant Keaton-esque detective and Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep’s singing (“Goodbye to My Mama”) and their beautiful portrayal of two sisters who talk simultaneously. And Virginia Madsen’s serene angel. And Lindsay Lohan’s version of “Frankie and Johnny.”
“A Prairie Home Companion” brings us Garrison Keillor’s “unique” brand of humor, translated from the radio to film. The story is about a radio program which is about to go off the air, and an angel of death (Virginia Madsen) is seen lurking throughout the film, seemingly symbolizing the “death” of the radio show, as well as the inevitable arrival of the Grim Reaper in everyone’s life. The film is entertaining, with some great spiritual songs from Meryl Streep (who can really sing), and Lily Tomlin (who does a fine job too), as well as country tunes from Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. Lindsay Lohan, playing a young singer named Lola who contemplates and writes about suicide, shows off her singing talents in an energetic rendition of “Frankie and Johnny,” and Lohan really belts it out. She is in fine form in the film although her presence is somewhat limited. She plays Streep’s daughter in the movie.
It should be noted that the film feels a little dis-jointed in a few spots. In one scene Streep and Tomlin do a great rendition of a song about the Lord as our shepherd, and in the next scene Harrelson and Reilly do a song called “Bad Jokes,” and they are very racy and risque. Perhaps director Robert Altman, a legend in Hollywood, intended to reach a large audience with this method. There is a character named Chuck (L.Q. Jones) who is having a sexual relationship with the lunch lady, and in one scene his pants are down but his shirt-tail covers the rear. Still, there is nothing graphic in the scene and although there is some language in the film, there are also some sweet moments and sweet songs which help balance the other stuff. This film is definitely not for anyone under age twelve but we do recommend it, along with the warning about the racy jokes, for ages twelve and above. The “Bad Jokes” song is the raciest scene. We encourage the viewer to enjoy the good music and this great ensemble cast. Also, be sure and listen for the “penguin joke.”