The first snippet of music in the opening credits for A Prairie Home Companion tricks the audience into thinking the movie is going to be some kind of a light homage for the blue plate special crowd. But within seconds, this all begins to slowly shift as the radio tunes in and out of different programs, some very portentous, all while the sun sinks below the horizon line and the light from the radio tower blinks on. For the sun is going down for real in Robert Altman’s final film, a fictionalization of the final broadcast of the very real A Prairie Home Companion, a long-running radio show that aired from 1974 to 2016 that was both written and conceived by Garrison Keillor, here playing a quasi-fictional version of himself.
A pall of inevitability hangs all over A Prairie Home Companion but it’s never a thick one. It’s a film about death and the end of things and how we must all turn the page at some point. Heavy stuff, indeed, but that it’s handled with the lightest of touch by a filmmaker who knew he was living in his last days is exactly what infuses A Prairie Home Companion with a zest and celebration of life even when it’s quite literally facing down death. For a little over five months after this film would go into wide release in June of 2006, Robert Altman would die on November 20th of the same year, age of 81.
Those stats, coupled with the film’s focus on the show’s final episode before the radio show is taken over by its new Dallas-based conglomerate would suggest that A Prairie Home Companion is as much fun as a funeral during the winter of the Russian Revolution. Surprisingly, though, Altman keeps everything perfectly balanced, forever teetering between becoming embarrassingly emotional on the way out the door and being so glibly practical that death is treated like the biggest nbd. And make no mistake that for all the talk about works Altman had on the back burner or future projects he was eyeing, it just seems unthinkable that a man who was so sick that he had to have a backup director on set (Paul Thomas Anderson, natch) just to get bonded was really thinking of his next career choice. Altman knew he didn’t have much more time left and this movie is proof positive.
Like so many films in the twilight of his career, A Prairie Home Companion is less concerned with telling a story as it is setting a mood. Altman wants the audience to sit backstage with the people who put in the work to deliver the weekly radio show with heart and love, all of them individuals with complex stories that make up the beauty of their own lives and the community of the radio show. We get to know Wanda (Meryl Streep) and Yolanda (Lilly Tomlin) Johnson, sisters in a once-semi famous family gospel quartet that has seen little outside of pain and misery; Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan), Wanda’s brooding, intelligent daughter; GK (Keillor), the master of ceremonies who carries around a dog-tiredness and a sense of general detachment; Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones), a randy veteran of the show who is sweet on the lady from craft services (Marylouise Burke); Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), another Keillor invention, who provides diversionary comic relief duties while acting as security for the theater; and Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), a cowboy singing duo with a raw enthusiasm for risqué material that is continually getting them in trouble with the sponsors. Oh, and then there’s Tommy Lee Jones’s all-business, humorless axe man doesn’t know who F. Scott Fitzgerald is but thinks the plaster work around the proscenium is fantastic enough that it should be preserved by cutting off a hunk and throwing it into a museum.
There is very light tension in A Prairie Home Companion regarding Lola’s connection and eventual acceptance of her mother and also whether or not a miracle will occur that might save the show but, really, it comes as no surprise to the audience when that miracle does not materialize. But most of the film is spent on figuring out just how to say goodbye with equal parts sadness and joy, never too much of one in expense of the other. A Prairie Home Companion is more or less what we would love for our funerals to be like; only a modicum of tears amid an incredible celebration of the natural cycle of life.
Probably the biggest juxtaposition in the film is between the Johnson Sisters and the Soderbergs, the monied family who is selling the radio station and getting out of the rat race. With the Johnsons, we find out so much about their life just through their idle conversation. Some of it is truly tragic but the way it’s relayed has a spirit of life; bad things happen to good people as easily as good things happen to bad people. The Soderberghs likewise represent a certain hard truth in life: People, even rich ones who have had better luck than the Johnsons, simply don’t last forever and they eventually tire out. While one can hope that the kids will carry on the work that’s been done, there’s just not a whole lot we can do about it when the kids would rather just cash out and not fool with the headaches. But maybe if we can’t necessarily get our kids to carry on our legacy verbatim, we might be able to get them to stop writing songs about suicide and embrace life in all of its ups and downs. That’s a win.
In the final passages of A Prairie Home Companion, the set is dismantled and thrown into the dumpster. Watched today, it’s a grim reminder of the famous bridge on the Lettermen set finding itself a viral star the day following the last episode of the Late Show, broken in pieces and sticking out of a trash receptacle. The show, and life, goes on. Enjoy the time you have. “Every show is your last show. That’s my philosophy,” says Garrison Keillor halfway through the movie in a quiet moment that feels like it’s going to turn up on the test later.
In the film’s coda, the film’s cast, now picking up the pieces after the show is over and making new plans, turn to face Virginia Madsen’s Angel of Death (a direct callback to Sally Kellermen in Brewster McCloud). And she slowly enters the diner in the final frame, there seems to be a slow relief that she hasn’t come for any of them as she did for Chuck or the axeman. But as she walks directly into the camera and a button on her trench coat engulfs the frame in a blur, the audience can’t help but catch their breath when they realize that has come for Robert Altman himself.
Try to stick the landing better and I can all but guarantee that you’ll fail.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain