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A Prairie Home Companion: Radio days

Radio days

Ridin' deranged: Reilly and Harrelson as Lefty and Dusty

Earthy cowboys, Angel of Death deliver Robert Altman's swan song in A Prairie Home Companion

I like things that old people like. Because of this, I spend a lot of time worrying about what will happen to a few of my favourite things (The New Yorker, the Grand Ole Opry) when their fan base, which is mostly comprised of people much older than I, are no longer whinnying with us.

Robert Altman – though his movies of late do not compare to tours de force from his heyday, such as Three Women, MASH, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or even Short Cuts – is not someone I want to see gone from this world. From the tone of his latest, A Prairie Home Companion, such a passing is imminent, at least in the 81-year-old director’s own mind.

APHC is, in turn, a paean to another genre on life support: the live-staged radio show. The movie is named after a fictional variety show of the Grand Ole Opry ilk, hosted by real-life radio personality Garrison Keillor (who wrote the screenplay). Keillor’s drony Lake Wobegon oeuvre is not included in my list of classic things that should not pass into obscurity, and here he has given himself carte blanche to wring dry Altman’s light touch in a story that’s brittle as bone.

Keillor plays himself as the host of a radio show that is staging its last episode, and Altman’s film, in usual fashion, is concerned with the interwoven human stories that knot together to tell a tale. As usual, the director has collected a crack cast, though it could be said that the performances he draws from them are slightly more glib and less soulful than in times past. There’s a couple of singing sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who have honed their limpy Midwestern accents to perfection). Then there’s Yolanda’s suicide-fixated teenage daughter, Lola, played by Lindsay Lohan, whose drawn, club-casualty visage seems more dried-out than those of actors thrice her age. Best of all is seamy cowboy-singing duo Lefty and Dusty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson), who pony up a couple of turkeys that steal the show, and appear to crack Harrelson and Reilly up in the process. And then there’s SNL’s Maya Rudolph in an earthy role as a very-pregnant stage manageress, and Tommy Lee Jones as the evil businessman who’s out to axe the whole production.

But down-homey wallpaper aside, the gist of APHC seems to come down in the form of the Angel of Death, played by Virginia Madsen, a gentle, radiant force in a white trench coat who takes the death of an old man into her cool white hands while proclaiming that "the death of an old man is not a tragedy."

But Mr. Altman, some of us beg to differ.

A Prairie Home Companion

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  • by Elydia Zavala - June 8, 2006, 8:09 pm

    I must thank Melora Koepke for having watched this movie….and not me.
    I’ve listened to PHC for as long as I can remember. It used to be an amusing show, with funny skits. IT has not aged well, and I wondered why on earth anyone would want to do a movie.
    I still want to know why, because they aren’t getting me into a theatre to watch it.
    If you want a better movie, just watch A Mighty Wind.

  • by Mark St Pierre - June 8, 2006, 8:36 pm

    Well, I, for one am a big fan of Garrison Keillor, Mrs Keopke and I happen to love Lake Woebegone Days – his wistful sense of homespun nosalgia is not only humorous but poignant and this would actually be the main reason for me venturing out to see this flick. That Garrison’s sense of whimsy is being filtered through Robert Altman’s lens only entices me that much more to avail myself of what will doubtless be a chuckle-inducing, knee-slappingly funny, thoughtful, and touching rumination on loss and transcendence!

  • by Ruth N - June 9, 2006, 11:43 am

    I have some mixed feelings about this film. On one hand, the combination of an acclaimed director and an astounding cast make it seem worthwhile, but on the other, I’m not sure I even understand what the story is here. If it wasn’t getting all this publicity because of the aforementioned factors, I don’t think I’d give this movie a second look. Maybe the target audience is an older one, and Lindsey Lohan was cast to attract the younger viewers as well. I guess I’m going to wait a bit and see how viewers and critics respond to it.

  • by Pedro Eggers - June 10, 2006, 3:14 pm

    I guess the we’ve supposed to couch our comments in the ‘respect your elders’ & ‘if you’ve got nothing nice to say then say nothing at all’ line of conduct if we’ve got any hopes of not pissing off any Altman devotees but guess what? That’s not me. I respect Robert Altman like nobody’s business but I will not call this anything other than a well-cast time killer with marginal artistic interest. Not everyone will get this movie. Not everyone will like this movie. Despite Ms. Sexy Young Thing du jour, Lindsay Lohan, being in this I was prepared to give this movie a fair shake but regrettably this movie just doesn’t get the job done.
    Am I supposed to be so dazzled by the talent that I don’t see that the script is just too obvious and two-dimensional? Am I supposed to respect Altman’s previous work so much that I let a few clunkers slide by? Honest to God, there were moments when I was watching this that I kept flashing back to Bob Dylan’s infamous 2003 flop “Masked and Anonymous” with fondness. Watching a master at work and thinking about legendary flops is not a good sign, folks. Altman may still be a film god but this is, at best, one of his minor insignificant creations.

  • by James Brooks - June 11, 2006, 4:50 pm

    One movie I am very anxious to see is “A Prairie Home Companion”, for obvious reasons.
    Granted, I have been a longtime fan of Garrison Keillor’s popular NPR radio show, and while the folly of filming a work that more or less rightfully belongs in the ‘theater of the mind’ may put the fond memory of this at very serious risk; in the hands of a master like director Robert Altman, the chances are this will be a unique visual experience.
    But let us not forget the real star of the show.
    As Robert Altman had disclosed, this movie is about Death, and considering that the 81 year old director may be nearing the end of his life (a comfortable journey of some length, we all hope), he has taken the liberty to make his pronouncement about something all of us will have to face.
    For this vision, he has intrusted the regal presence of actress Virginia Madsen, in the role of a’ Dangerous Woman’.
    Since discovering her in the movie “Electric Dreams” almost 20 years, I have religiously followed her career; during which I have watched her suffer through a long series of bad movies and embarrasing performances in roles that were clearly beneath her; then in 2004, receiving an Oscar nominated role in the surprise hit “Sideways”.
    It was my hope that finally she would be recognized for the great talent she was, though her performance in the recent thiller “Firewall” did not greatly advance her career.
    I had felt the same about her seemingly minor role in ‘APHC’, but after learning about the ‘Death’ subplot, I have had second thoughts.
    Though Virginia Madsen does not get to sing and join with the cast, her presence as the Angel of Death may turn out to be the most important, and hopefully the most memorable role in the movie.
    The vision of a astonishly beautiful woman in a white trench coat as Death is an imaginative one; and if so all of us wouldn’t mind lining up to take the trip with her.
    Let us all thank Robert Altman for this, and hope he is right.

  • by Kate Sessenwein - June 14, 2006, 12:19 pm

    Put Stuart McLean in for Garrison Keillor and we have a Canadian equivalent. His radio show has the stories and the topical music, sort of a radio media variety show. The Angel of Death could be from the squad of Dead Like Me, perhaps Mandy Patinkin himself.
    For musical Canadian content we would have a slew to choose from. For a director there could be Jewison, Egoyan or even Reitman, though the nod would have to go to the senior statesman of Canadian film, Mr. Norman Jewison.
    The CBC or Film Canada to underwrite, soundtrack available at Indigo/Chapters.

  • by Lewie Miya - June 17, 2006, 6:00 pm

    A friend who spent most of the winter with his trailer down south told me about him listening all the time to PHC. He saw the movie and really enjoyed it.
    I never heard of PHC and don’t follow country music ( I’ve always listened to jazz since my early teens) but my wife and I went to see the movie last night on my friend’s recommendation. We enjoyed it very much. There was a couple of ladies next to us who laughed uproaringly at almost every scene. I told my wife that they must have seen the movie couple of times and knew when a joke or funny scene was coming up. They provided canned laughter for us which I didn’t mind since some humour I didn’t catch.
    Garrison Keillor has a recognizable voice and style of making commentaries. I never heard of him before but now I remember listening to him on our car radio when we travelled in the states. So now I know who that was after watching this movie. I like his way of telling a story. He would make a great teacher and lecturer for all ages of students.
    The cast was excellent..especially Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin. It’s good when the actors can do their own singin and not having it dubbed in…just like in the movie “Walk the Line”.
    By the way, country and gospel music have benifited from the influence of jazz…you can feel it in their music..the rhythm and catchy phrases.

  • by Joyce Ostroff - June 25, 2006, 3:24 pm

    Again, this is not a “for all” film, but probably more suitable for older, simpler folk. Parts are slow and corny, but there is humour from time-to-time that is almost side-splitting.
    Performances by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson are superb and of course, the multi-talented Garrison Keillor playing himself is absolutley awesome. That being said, it drags in parts but is on the whole – real, entertaining, touching, humourous and a good “down home” variety show brought to screen.
    See it for its charm and because, if nothing else, it’s so different from anything you’ve seen before or are likely to see in future…

  • by Reuven De Souza - January 20, 2007, 12:58 pm

    I watched and then read with interest the glowing reviews offered by Roger Ebert worth respect to this film. I then read Miss Koepke and her review and realized that this one of those polarizing films that demands to see seen in order to be understood. After sitting through the film, I have to say that I come down strongly on the side of Miss Koepke. It is of interest for those select few to for whom this homespun warmhearted tales is comforting. I can certainly see how for people who would have grown up with this or for whom the radio show is like a warm blanket, it is a very good film full of good intentions. But having grown up in a cynical age it is hard to get a grasp of the material. A disappointment. Although i will say that the interplay with Streep and Tomlin is rather excellent.

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