According to Entertainment Weekly, Garrison Keillor approached director Robert Altman about making a movie of his screenplay. "Are you interested?" asked Keillor. Without batting an eyelash, Altman said, "Of course". He knew an invitation to play jazz when he heard it.
Keillor, the host of the live radio show A Prairie Home Companion , for which the resulting film is named, is so droll, so ugly, and yet so graceful. Altman locks in on the way Keillor commands his ensemble by moving slower than everyone else. In the film, Keillor continually tells the story of how he got into radio. The tall tale is an evolving tapestry of lies, constantly cherry picking from the orbiting swirl of activity and incorporating it. That’s what the movie is like: extemporizing, embroidering, riffing, refusing to rush.
A Prairie Home Companion is part live concert film, part backstage farce. It finds the humor in Minnesotans, in Powdermilk Biscuits, in black coffee ("It keeps the Swedes and Germans/Awake through all the sermons"). Director Altman has a love of performers that’s inseparable from his joie de vive. He has Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a pair of singing sisters; who wouldn’t be delighted about that? He keeps things loose and watches his actors work; they resonate with one another like musical instruments, though Kevin Kline’s heart isn’t in it, and Lindsay Lohan, a sop to the demographic, is like a stuck key. But this is a variety show, and you aren’t expected to like everything.
During a hilarious bit on duct tape, Keillor says something interesting: "All repairs are temporary and short-term." Altman, one of the greatest directors alive, is 81 years old, held together by duct tape himself. Eleven years ago, he had a heart transplant. What he’s up to here is so much more than just nostalgia. The references to mortality are too numerous to recount. Death shadows almost every conversation and the lyrics of almost every song.
But the film is, like those lyrics, soft and tender. One of the characters, played by Virginia Madsen, talks like a religious nut job. Then you find out she is really an incarnation of the Angel of Death. Significantly, she is compassionate, beautiful, and wears not black, but white. She says of a man she has come to claim, "The death of an old man is not a tragedy. Forgive him his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care."
Later, she visits Garrison Keillor. She has not come for him – not yet. Where Max von Sydow played chess with Death in The Seventh Seal , Keillor instead tells Death the "penguin joke". Maybe you’ve heard it. It is Zen-like in its stupidity. How many times has Keillor told that joke in thirty years? Death asks why it’s funny. Keillor says, "I don’t know. I guess because people laugh at it." Then he takes a bite of an apple.
A Prairie Home Companion may end up the coda to Altman’s brilliant career, or it may not. It’s his tip of the hat to the ephemeral nature of live performance, and of life itself. It seems simple, and so it is. It also pretty much says it all.
If you’re hearing this review on Tuesday, you probably have until Thursday night to catch A Prairie Home Companion on film; by Friday, it will likely have shuffled off this mortal coil. Catch up with it on DVD. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.