Since first making its debut on Minnesota Public Radio back on July 6, 1974, A Prairie Home Companion has gone on to entertain millions of fans with its mix of folksy music, offbeat advertisements for imaginary sponsors and homespun monologues, all ostensibly emanating from Lake Wobegon, the mythical Midwest “town that time forgot.” In truth, the live show is broadcast from the stage of St. Paul’s famed Fitzgerald Theater, which has long served as home base for the popular NPR series.
Currently airing Saturday evenings on over 500 stations across the country, as well as in Europe and the Far East, the program is still hosted with perfect aplomb by originator/scriptwriter Garrison Keillor, a consummate storyteller with an incomparable gift for crafting affectionate portraits of rural Americana. His droll sense of humor and deadpan delivery have dependably combined to craft comfy tableaus in the fertile imaginations of audiences fond of his nostalgic brand of theater of the mind.
In contemplating a movie version of A Prairie Home Companion, a critical issue Keillor undoubtedly had to address was whom to entrust with the very tricky task of adapting his creation to the big screen. Well, the perfect pick turned out to be another faithfully iconoclast, namely, seven-time Oscar-nominee Robert Altman.Altman’s trademark approach to moviemaking is in evidence, here, in the character-driven plot executed by an ensemble frequently seen speaking simultaneously, stepping on each other’s lines as they improvise much of their dialogue. Nonetheless, the film fairly faithfully conveys the feeling a fan of the radio franchise might anticipate, as it transpires almost entirely at the Fitzgerald Theater (except for opening and closing sequences
shot at a nearby diner), dividing its time equally between musical performances and assorted back stage dramas. The cast features Keillor and many of the regulars musicians and crew members from the radio show as themselves, though most of the lead roles are
played by A-list actors like Academy Award-winners Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Kline, Oscar-nominees Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly and Lily Tomlin, plus Lindsay Lohan and SNL’s May Rudolph. What is remarkable is that Streep, Tomlin, Harrelson, Reilly, and Lohan all do their own singing, and manage to mix-in imperceptibly with the seasoned veterans, as if they’ve been a part of the production all along.
The film is narrated by Kline as Guy Noir, a down-on-his-luck private eye
cut from the same cloth as the protagonist of your typical Mickey Spillane or Damon Runyan pulp yarn. The cleverly-concocted tale unfolds on the night The Axeman (Jones), representing the Texas conglomerate which has just purchased the historic theater, is set to announce corporate plans to cancel A Prairie Home Companion and to turn the building into a parking lot. However, as with any Altman endeavor, it makes more sense to savor the atmosphere of each scene for its own sake, instead of expecting a structured
plotline and a conventional payoff. For that is where the pleasure lies in this fitting tribute to a treasured cultural institution. Highly-recommended for loyal devotees inclined to approach A Prairie Home Companion as a cinematic capstone on Keillor’s magnificent career.