Why is A Prairie Home Companion so charming? It’s not one of Robert Altman’s greatest movies.
The story is slight and its central feature of an angel (Virginia Madsen) roaming around in the wings of a St. Paul theater during the radio show’s final broadcast is a bust. Most of the film is dedicated to the skits, songs, and advertisements that constitute the Prairie Home radio show and the characters’ preparations to perform them. I have now seen it twice and I’m still a little flummoxed as to why all faults are absolved by the lightness in its touch, the chemistry of its cast, the tight, yet seemingly effortless construction of Garrison Keillor’s vision, and the overriding message of good spirit in the face of calamity. Maybe I just answered my own question.
“Happiness is specific,” Keillor says, refuting Tolstoy’s maxim on families, and much of what is entertaining about the show stems from the preciseness of his nostalgic recreation of a show that “died in my childhood.” He’s offering up his blankie and hoping you find it equally warm. I don’t have a particular affinity for old time jazz or jokes about Norwegian immigrants, but I enjoy them here all the same. Maybe it’s a Midwestern thing, but growing up, I remember a remarkable appreciation for the radio show among kids of all dispositions, listening to the Lake Wobegon tapes on long car rides through Indiana and Wisconsin or while learning wood carving from Mr. Spangler. That a down home jamboree could be interesting to heavy-metal loving middle school students speaks to its wide appeal and the effectiveness of Keillor’s satirical skills in making sure the nostalgia doesn’t age into corny homily.
“This really is Garrison Keillor’s movie,” says Altman in the making-of documentary Come Play With Us. “This is his sensibility…my obligation was to film this radio show.” But Altman’s directorial touch is unmistakable and he and Keillor assist each other with simpatico personalities. The phrasing of dialogue and the deceptively relaxed vibe of A Prairie Home Companion mimics the studied chaos of Altman’s multi-character dramas and results in a style that Keillor says “shows you a great deal about the show that’s real-the texture of it.” Altman’s director commentary also reveals a similar sense of humor, dry as smoked herring. “I don’t know what’s ad-libbed or scripted in this film,” he drawls, “because I didn’t read the script.”
Much of the movie is shot like a concert film, revolving around the radio show broadcast with the same crane shots, slow camera shifts, and long takes used on the performances as with the backstage shenanigans. Altman heightens this effect by not cutting to reactions of the theater audience. “The people out there watching the movie is the audience.” Similarly, he lets the shots run long and wide because he wants the audience to take in the action as they desire, and he clutters the frame with mirrors to provide alternate angles. “You can look around that frame and see what you want to see while it continues. I’m not forcing you to see anything.” As in a live setting, the viewer becomes an active spectator.
That there is a lot of action for the audience to take in is a testament to Altman’s busy cast, who act as individual circus rings, and the long takes allows the natural rhythm of these performers to unfold. The enthusiasm of the main characters-Keillor, the Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) and dirty joke loving cowboys the Old Trailhands (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) — driven by their skill as singers and actors is infectious. They are the fairground cornpone tinged line-up that never were but should have been. The actors’ improvisational abilities and classical preparatory discipline flesh out their sketches for maximum comic pathos. (Notably Streep and Tomlin, when they riff on a Johnson sisters’ family tree of their own invention.) The featured cast is backed by Companion regulars — sound effects prankster Tom Keith, singer Jearlyn Steel, Robin and Linda Williams, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and musical director Rich Dworsky-who provide a solid base shouldering elaborate sideman duties.
The story, such as it is, only gets in the way of the variety show elements that are the movie’s greatest assets. In addition to the angel bit, Tommy Lee Jones shows up towards the end as “Axeman”, a corporate honcho who has bought out the Fitzgerald Theater and will shut it down along with the show. But the show has so much life in it and Jones’ appearance is so brief that he never comes across as a credible threat. A Prairie Home Companion simply swats at death and keeps on singing.
The world of A Prairie Home Companion may be a fond remembrance of an imagined past, but Keillor has no illusions that it ever existed. His characters romp in happy innocence, unburdened by anything outside of their creator’s imagination. The closing musical number, “In The Sweet By and By”, is performed like a New Orleans funeral march, with actors and singers dancing, taking hold of the microphone, wandering on and off stage, and pulling people on from the wings. It’s the type of boisterous encore that’ll leave you with a fixed smile, feeling like the show will go on long after you exit the theater and the music has stopped reverberating inside of you.