Garrison Keillor’s radio show “The Prairie Home Companion” tends to be, as George W. Bush might say, a divider not a uniter among my friends. There are the fans who tune in every Saturday evening or catch the replay Sunday mornings and who sell out the show’s live performances as Keillor and his gang travel the country. And there are those who long ago had enough of what they see as Keillor’s never-ending wallow-in-nostalgia act.
I’m somehwere in between. I salute Keillor for giving us American roots music on the radio every week and inventing Lake Woebegone, but must admit I tend to flip stations when he starts into the latest Guy Noir melodrama, and just a few of those greetings from Uncle Ned and Ellie in Tacoma back home to Kristie in Sioux Falls on her community college graduation are sufficient for me.
The movie version, then, very nicely described by Wikipedia as “a 2006 comedy ensemble elegy,” came as a pleasant surprise. Here’s why.
For those who know the radio-show version of “A Prairie Home Companion,” the movie contains a shocker. In collaboration with the late, great director Robert Altman, screenwriter/star Garrison Keillor has made a daring move. He’s brought into the foreground the element that underlies all that small-town nostalgia – death. It’s one of the oldest and most potent of all plot lines. As the detective Guy Noir notes at one point, quoting the English poet Robert Herrick: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,/Old Time is still a-flying:/And this same flower that smiles today/Tomorrow will be dying.”
This is not to suggest that the movie is grim. Those who like the radio show will get their money’s worth. There are the musical segments, the jokes, the overlapping story lines. Keillor has cleverly chopped up his Lake Woebegone tales, and on this mythical show just about everybody gets to tell a story. The film floods over us in Altman’s trademark pseudo-documentary style, and the illusion of a chaotic backstage reality is powerful, helped enormously by top-notch actors.
As always, Meryl Streep is a marvel of authenticity, nicely paired here with the wise-cracking Lily Tomlin as the singing Johnson Sisters. As the cowboy-entertainers Dusty and Lefty, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly deliver crude cowhand humor with panache. And Keillor himself, as “GK,” does an excellent job of playing his radio-stage persona.
Gradually the theme becomes clear: we love these jokes and tales and bits of song and human warmth clustered around a radio stage show in the dark precisely because they are invaluable, irretrievable. As in that great-granddad of American plays, Our Town, the film celebrates these moments even as they pass away. It’s hard not to see a certain joyful irony in this being Altman’s last film.