Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 6/19/06 w/ Additional Edits.
Throughout his entire career, Robert Altman has made films that always explored different worlds and genres. Films like M.A.S.H., McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park along with favorites like Images, The Long Goodbye, California Split, 3 Women, Brewster McCloud, Cookie's Fortune, Vincent & Theo, and The Company. All of these films revealed Altman's talent for telling little stories with many people as they all come together to explore something. Ever since starting in the 1960s, Altman has become a major influence in American cinema as he has inspired many directors to handle huge, ensemble stories. In 2006, in his 80s, Altman received a Lifetime Honorary Academy Award for all of his work. That same year, he released what would be his final film in A Prairie Home Companion.
Based on the same radio program created by playwright Garrison Keiller, the film version of A Prairie Home Companion tells the story of the radio program broadcasting its final show in its native Minnesota. Directed and produced by Altman with Keiller writing the script, the film reveals the end of an era as Altman explores the world of radio and performance. With an all-star cast that includes Altman regular Lily Tomlin plus Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Maya Rudolph, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, and Keiller as himself. A Prairie Home Companion is a true testament to the talents of Robert Altman.
After the owners of the Soderbergh family deciding to sell the famed Fitzgerald Theater, which broadcasts the radio program called A Prairie Home Companion, it's a hard day for everyone. For an ex-detective turned security supervisor named Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), he's spooked by the haunting presence of death as the radio program is to play its final show. For leader Garrison Keiller, he decides to give the show a good send off as the stage manager Al (Tim Russell) and makeup lady Donna (Sue Scott) are saddened that they'll never see all of the musicians and people who will be there. To join the final broadcast is a country legend named Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones), the Johnson Sisters, and the country team of Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly). Joining her mother Yolanda (Meryl Streep) is a young poet named Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who helps her mother and aunt Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) while writing poems about suicide.
The show is played featuring many of the regulars of the radio program including a voiceman (Tom Keith), the duo of Robin & Linda Williams, Jearlyn Steele, and Keiller who sings and opens the program while doing little commercials in between. While he performs and does his program, Yolanda and Rhonda reminisce about the days when they did the radio program with the rest of their late sisters which they still grieve about. Dusty and Lefty rehearse their own comedy routines for the program while Guy Noir is intrigued by a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) who turns out to be an angel watching the show in its final broadcast. The Johnson Sisters perform as do the duo of Dusty and Lefty while something happens to one of their performers as seen by the makeup lady and the lunchlady (Marylouise Burke).
The specter of death is nearing on its program as Guy asks the pregnant stagehand Molly (Maya Rudolph) to be on the lookout as things only overwhelm all of the performers. Garrison doesn't know what to do while dealing with his own issues with Yolanda over a brief fling they had many years ago as he talks with Lola about her late father and the angel about a joke. Things get worse when the new owner (Tommy Lee Jones) arrive to get ready to destroy the Fitzgerald Theater for a parking lot as he watches the final performance. Guy wants Molly to call in the angel as he tries to understand the owner's intentions for his new parking lot. With the show closing down, Al wants Dusty and Lefty to clean their act for the show which ends up becoming a disaster. Lola decides to help out by performing where the show leads to a final send-off while Garrison doesn't want to admit its over as the end come nears for A Prairie Home Companion.
Stories about the end of an era or an end of something is often told in a very sad way but for Robert Altman, who too might be on his way out. The end is not really the end at all. Even for a 30-year old radio program that people love to listen and laugh with is filled with a lot of spirit and joy. With a script Keiller wrote based on a screen story he did with Ken LaZebnik, Altman manages to capture the spirit of the radio program by doing the film exactly on the Fitzgerald Theater right smack down in the middle of St. Paul, Minnesota. Even the script that Keiller wrote shows the atmosphere of theater and music as things don't go the way they plan while everything is a disaster and people become unsure of what to do. Still, it's the right script that brings the antidote to the style of Robert Altman.
Altman uses his mastery of multiple storylines and overlapping dialogue to convey this story of a final performance by letting many characters know what they're feeling and their own anxieties. Even the specter of death is felt throughout the entire film as an angel is coming by while the new owner comes in to represent the changing times. Though Altman isn't making some kind of political statement into the world of corporations, he's really talking more about what a radio program means to the people who listens to them or be part of the program. Altman is able to make the audience aware of what's going on while keeping up with the storylines as he goes for long shots in certain sequences while cutting to another part of the story in the film. He also captures the tension, sadness, and joy that is part of the radio program as Robert Altman, with a little help from stand-in director Paul Thomas Anderson, shows his mastery in the art of creating a world right in front of his eyes.
Helping Altman with his unique, intimate vision is cinematographer Edward Lachman whose lighting technique harkens the days of old cinema of the 1950s and 60s in the film's exterior sequences and scenes in the diner across from the theater. The film's interiors filled with blue coloring and huge, white background lights for some of the staging reveals the grand presentation of the radio station along with some wonderful, yellowish lighting for some of the film's interior scenes. Lachman's dreamy, intimate presentation is a real highlight for the film. Production designer Dina Goldman and set decorator Tora Peterson also captures the atmosphere of the stage by re-creating little background sets and placing props to give the sense of intimacy of the story. The look of the film in its production and photography shows the true authenticity of the stage. Costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas also does wonderful work for the film's costumes whether it's the more extravagant clothing of the Johnson sisters, the cowboy suits of the Dusty & Lefty, to the noir clothing that the Dangerous Woman and Guy Noir wears.
Editor Jacob Craycroft does great work in giving Altman's unique presentation a nicely paced, leisurely style while giving perspective on the multiple stories while cutting when a story is done to a performance on stage. Craycroft's editing is truly masterful for its presentation on all the stories and tension as it rings true to Altman's work. Sound mixer Drew Kunin and sound editor Eliza Paley also does great work on the sound where the whole films sounds like it's done exactly in a theater. The sound of the film help captures the atmosphere as well as the music that is playing in the background on some scenes while the music comes out fully.
Finally, there's the music of the film which is the heart of the movie and the radio program. With a group of musicians who all played on the radio program including Robin and Linda Williams, Jearlyn Steele, and Keiller himself, all the actors do perform and sing the songs that in that film. In many ways, the music is true to the program's spirit as it leans more towards traditional country music, jingles, and traditional pop. Many of the film’s song performances are wonderful while several of them indeed standout with some altered lyrics done by Keiller. Songs like Lindsay Lohan's Frankie & Johnny, the Bad Jokes song by Dusty & Lefty, and a wonderful country ballad by the Johnson Sisters are amazing to hear. Even the final song in the film, Red River Valley brings a wealth of emotions whether its sadness and joy, it captures the spirit of the radio program as it becomes one of the best film soundtracks of the year.
The film's cast which includes such regulars of the radio program like Robin & Linda Williams, Jearlyn Steele, Tom Keith, bandleader Richard A. Dworsky, and Prudence Johnson are all wonderful, notably Tom Keith whose sound effects are hilarious. Smaller performances like Marylouise Burke as the Lunch Lady, Sue Scott as makeup lady Donna, Tim Russell as Al, and L.Q. Jones as Chuck are all notable in their roles as they bring the sadness of the fading radio show while L.Q. Jones gives a great performance of a country song on the stage. Lindsay Lohan gives a wonderful performance as a jaded youth who learns about what joy the radio program brings a she manages to give a great rendition of Frankie & Johnny as Lohan proves to be a very good actress despite her other film choices. Maya Rudolph is very funny as the pregnant Molly who is trying to keep things organized while dealing with Guy Noir's paranoid suspicion.
Tommy Lee Jones is also excellent as the cynical Axeman who feels that times are changing and acts very still while watching its final broadcast while not being aware of what the radio program means to people. Jones does a very good job in representing someone who thinks he can take away things only to realize that its spirit will never be gone. Kevin Kline gives one of his funniest performances as Guy Noir which shows Kline's mastery in physical and reactionary comedy. Kline manages to bring a nice, noir-like approach to dialogue in some scenes while his comedic scenes are pure gold which owes more to the style of Charlie Chaplin. Virginia Madsen is also amazing as the angelic Dangerous Woman who brings a chilling presence as she reminisces her joy of the program and what led to her own death as Madsen brings an old-school, entrancing quality reminiscent of 1940s acting. Garrison Keiller is also great for playing himself as he often reveals his own brand of comedy while bringing charm to his real self that is often enjoyable about Keiller.
Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are truly the funniest duo of film as Dusty & Lefty with their not-so-intelligent personalities and off-putting comments. Their performances truly brings the right kind of humor that aren't for everyone, notably the Bad Jokes song which features some really funny bad jokes. Harrelson is wonderful for his own charming personality while the often great character actor Reilly is great for his own comedic timing, including the time to fart as the guy should be in every movie. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are amazing in their role as Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson. With Streep doing the more showy role and Tomlin as the more comedic performance, both women do great work in their own individual roles as Streep does a great Midwestern accent as Tomlin says some funny things in the film. When they perform on stage, both women are surprising in their own performances as a ballad they sing shows the range of their voices as its proof that these two ladies can sing.
While the film isn't anywhere as movies like Nashville or Short Cuts, A Prairie Home Companion is still an amazing and exuberant film from the great Robert Altman. Thanks to a great cast, a great crew, great music, and the work of Garrison Keiller, A Prairie Home Companion does belong in the list of films that Altman has made that people can enjoy. While the film may not bring more people into the radio show, at least he makes them aware of what kind of program the show is. For this, Altman succeeds in capturing the spirit of what is A Prairie Home Companion as he bows out with style. If anyone is a fan or new to his work, A Prairie Home Companion is a true testament to the spirit and talents of Robert Altman.
Robert Altman Films: (The Delinquents) - (The James Dean Story) - Countdown (1968 film) - (That Cold Day in the Park) - M.A.S.H. - (Brewster McCloud) - McCabe & Mrs. Miller - (Images) - The Long Goodbye - (Thieves Like Us) - California Split - Nashville - (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson) - 3 Women - (A Wedding) - (Quintet) - (A Perfect Couple) - (HealtH) - Popeye - (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) - (Streamers) - (Secret Honor) - (O.C. & Stiggs) - Fool for Love - (Beyond Therapy) - (Aria-Les Boreades) - (Tanner '88) - (Vincent & Theo) - The Player - Short Cuts - Pret-A-Porter - (Kansas City) - (The Gingerbread Man) - Cookie's Fortune - Dr. T & the Women - Gosford Park - The Company - (Tanner on Tanner)
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