Go backstage with A Prairie Home Companion, and experience the laughter and joy of down-home America’s favorite radio show. Acclaimed director Robert Altman (Gosford Park, The Player) leads an all-star cast in this magical, fictional account of the legendary show’s final radio broadcast. As cast and crew assemble one last time to sing, tell stories and reminisce, the result is an unforgettable homage to a beloved American treasure.
This was my second time watching ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, and it won’t be my last. I had first picked it up from the library (our city’s got a pretty deep and diverse collection!) and only bothered to watch it because of another Robert Altman-fest I was doing, seeing as the title and cast hadn’t really piqued my curiosity.
Say what you will about downloading and borrowing, but people like me discover tons of new things thanks to those avenues – and end up buying more media because of it. The argument that it’s “stealing” may apply in some cases (some people never go out and buy anything), but a lot of us dig having easy access to movies, music and books at home whenever we get the urge.
Anyway, all this to say that ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ is one of those films that I’m very pleased to have on my shelf. Not only does it help to complete my Altman collection (which is growing slowly, year by year…), but it’s a film that I’d like to share with others as well. I suspect that, given the chance, this disc would get a lot of spin.
The sound editing for this film was a real treat: we get this impression of actually being behind the scenes. The soundscape was very full (despite another review that claimed otherwise): you could hear the echo of the stage, the murmur of the various people milling about, the reactions of the crowds, …etc. It was all mixed to immerse the viewer in the setting, and it works beautifully. Frankly, I would upgrade this film to Blu-ray if only because of this…
I’m truly not a fan of bluegrass, and even less-so country. But the heartfelt presentation here made it so pleasing that I couldn’t help but grin along with the cast and real-life musicians. It’s quite clear to me that I could never listen to the soundtrack CD on its own, but the way that Altman layered the various stories over the performances made it feel like you were there, taking part in the making of this live radio show. It was fun.
The cast kept things lively and mostly real, actually, even if I still get numb at the thought of them as an ensemble – despite two totally enjoyable viewings. Maybe it’s because that groovy vibe petered out towards the end, and because the final sequence felt like a old, limp balloon – a shadow of the film’s former self. Perhaps that’s why I’m left with a so-so feeling when I think of the cast.
Garrison Keillor, for instance, was a revelation. He’s the one who started the original radio show, way back in 1974. He’s totally the heart of this piece and I can see how he would be the cement that kept the whole thing going for so long: he’s a consummate professional, but he’s also a playful and likeable guy. The lines can spilled from his lips were pure delight.
Meanwhile we have Meryl Streep. I always like her performances and respect her talent, even though I may be cool about the films themselves. There’s also something about her that leaves me a bit wary. I don’t know what, exactly. Here, she was as great as usual, pitch-perfect (which is saying much considering that she sings all the songs for real ). She pretty much plays a dumbed down Francesca (from ‘Bridges of Madison County’), a simpleton with a childlike positive outlook.
Her daughter is played by Lindsay Lohan. This was in 2006, just before she had a complete meltdown, so I watched her closely, wondering if there was talent there before her notoriety took over. There was. She didn’t leap off the screen, but she certainly had potential. In fact, I couldn’t stop telling myself how much it’s shame that it’s been squandered the way it has. I hope she gets back on the horse someday.
Another actor that was hard to ignore was Virginia Madsen. I actually only know her from ‘Candyman’. I love that film, but she always left me slightly disturbed (there’s just something in her eyes… ). In ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, she plays an angel of sorts and she had the right ethereal presence, but her waxy appearance was distracting – I kept wondering if it was just make-up or if she’d had surgery.
Kevin Kline has never been a favourite of mine. There’s an arrogance there that I find kind of off-putting. It’s not to say that he not good, talented, it’s just that I always get the impression that he thinks (or “knows”) he’s GREAT – and that bothers me. He was good here, but he filled too much screen time with his improvisations – which were good, but not… GREAT. Those moments looked like performances instead of like real life – a pet peeve of mine.
His part was written in a truly amusing fashion, however, as an anachronistic film noir detective (complete with a semi-poetic narration that’s a throwback to films of the ’40s) thrown into the modern era despite himself, wishing he were in a different time and place. Of course, this type of live radio show is a relic of a bygone era itself, so it’s only fitting.
All in all, ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ is a splendid companion for a couple of hours. It has its creaks and imperfections, but it’s a sturdy film overall. It’s a great example of Robert Altman’s work, in that it shows us a gaggle of partly goofy people and gives them flight, making them human and endearing them to us.
When the show ends, it impossible to not regret that it must, having known it for so short a time. Still, everything runs its course, of course, and all the characters invariably have to move on to other things. In doing so, though, it allows them to rejuvenate their hearts and begin to dream anew.
For about 100 mins, though, we got a chance to watch them giving their all to something that they all believed in passionately, that they basically lived and breathed. And, for those 100 mins, we lived and breathed it with them – we were in very good company.