The last movie from great film director Robert Altman, who died last year, is a fitting epitaph to an illustrious career.
A Prairie Home Companion is a long-running variety show on American National Public Radio, hosted by that wryly-deadpan comic novelist Garrison Keillor from the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is a gently droll send-up of the old-fashioned cosy comforts of that lost or maybe fictional life of the American Midwest where every woman makes a fine apple pie, every man goes duck shooting and every evening is spent in a rocking chair listening to country music on the radio.
The film fictionalises the radio series and imagines that it is being closed down by a greedy real-estate magnate (Tommy Lee Jones) who wants to turn the theatre into a car park.
Garrison Keillor hosts one last evening which stars The Johnson Sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), a veteran country music vocal duet that can still bring a tear to the eye with their nostalgic ballads and The Old Trailhands (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), singing cowboys whose increasingly crude lyrics turn the airwaves blue.
Most of the drama happens backstage where the doorkeeper, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his-luck private dick, is trying to save the show with the help of a mysterious blonde (Virginia Madsen) who haunts the action.
Philadelphia Weekly “A small movie about big things, A Prairie Home Companion is a freewheeling grab-bag of moments both comic and tragic, tied together by Altman’s stubborn unyielding assertion that all good things – including life itself – must soon come to an end.”
Hollywood Reporter: “Garrison Keillor, impresario, creator and host of one of radio’s longest running programmes – 31 years and counting – and director Robert Altman are a match made in Heaven.”
Robert Altman was allowed to plough his own furrow making films that were as quirky and original as anything that has come out of Hollywood in the last thirty years. The results were either works of genius like M.A.S.H, Nashville and The Player or embarrassing turkeys like Popeye or Prêt-a-porter.
Lovers of his distinctive style delight in his use of a roving camera to create a mock documentary genre with a large cast of eccentrics whose stories usually inter-weave to paint an offbeat picture of American life with American popular music usually given a prominent role.
A Prairie Home Companion will not disappoint his fans as it contains all these elements. The cast intermingle in the cramped backstage areas with the country music on stage being piped through speakers to their dressing rooms whilst the camera wanders with them restlessly. If it is no M.A.S.H or Nashville then it is up there with the best of the rest using all of his trademark techniques with no loss of brilliance.
A director with Altman’s glittering reputation had no problems recruiting an equally glittering cast to create a classic Altman ensemble with no one star dominating the firmament.
First amongst equals though is Meryl Streep as Yolanda, one of the Johnson Sisters. Tired of the routine, worn down by disappointment, she is buoyed up by her ability to make the best of a bad job. Streep succeeds in giving life to Yolanda’s heroic inner conflict without letting her drop her guard. As she gets older, Meryl Streep is acquiring a formidable armoury of expressions.
Similar subtlety is reflected throughout the cast. Tommy Lee Jones presents the bad guy as a man saddened by his own realistic worldview whilst Woody Harrelson, obviously loving every minute of his role as a seedy cowboy songster, twinkles with mischief as he insistently lowers the tone.
Kevin Kline preens his pencil thin moustache but as he catches his reflection in one of the many mirrors that clutter the film set he shows us his insecurities. His performance, perilous at times with its deliberately corny physical gags, bursts with charisma.
Towering over everyone and holding everything together is Garrison Keillor playing himself. He is a giant of a man with that pained look of a comic strangely vulnerable in his monstrous frame. He hardly raises his voice throughout the film, slipping seamlessly from dialogue into song, but he is always heard, always at the centre of the action.
The film’s humour is recognisably his humour: sad, homely, playfully corny or just plain funny. Altman was fortunate to have him as his screenwriter.
Whether or not the 81-year-old director knew that this would be his last, the film is all about endings – the closure of a theatre, the passing of an era, the sunset of a career and, underpinning all those themes, the end of life itself.
Death, smiling and inevitable, sends the gentlest of shadows across the proceedings.
One of the characters says, “The death of an old man is not a tragedy” whilst another sings, “the day is short and the night is long.” Robert Altman, whether he knew it or not, was bidding the world goodbye with a sigh and the odd tear but also with a laugh and definitely no regrets.