A Prairie Home Companion
(PG) 105 mins
‘The death of an old man is not an occasion for tragedy,’ concludes the master of ceremonies Garrison Keillor in A Prairie Home Companion and it’s hard not to hear in these words the voice of the film’s director Robert Altman, who died a few weeks ago aged 81. Intimations of mortality abound in this comic fable, which in many ways fits snugly into Altman’s oeuvre: there’s the ramshackle narrative, the backstage milieu (see also Nashville and The Company), the concern with performance, the overlapping dialogue, and the trademark camera zooms.
The premise is that it’s the final night of a long-running variety radio show, based on Garrison Keillor’s real-life A Prairie Home Companion, which is being broadcast in front of a live theatre audience in St Paul, Minnesota. A Texas corporation, represented by Tommy Lee Jones’s Axeman, has decided to close down the programme and redevelop the venue. For the owlish GK (played by Garrison Keillor himself, sporting a suit and red trainers), this is not the time for sobbing speeches - after all, there are fake commercials about duct tape to deliver, guests to introduce, and songs to perform about the joys of rhubarb pie. And among the stage acts are the bickering Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) and the crooning cowboys (Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly), whose taste for bad jokes is limitless.
Not everything pays off in the digitally shot A Prairie Home Companion, not least the clumsy storytelling device of Virginia Madsen’s trenchcoated angel of death. But it’s a pleasure to observe the public and private personas of the artists, to eavesdrop on their rambling backstage anecdotes, and to witness the imperfections of their acts. You’re left wondering how many other filmmakers could have fashioned such a genial, warm-hearted meditation on mortality itself.