"Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying."
--Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
"To the Virgins to Make Much of Time"
And so ends Robert Altman's 2006 film version of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," the lines of the old poem pretty well summing up the fleeting nature of the movie and of life. I admit I have never listened to a single episode of Keillor's long-running radio variety show, yet that didn't stop me from appreciating at least the sentiment behind Altman's musical film treatment of it. Yes, the movie is a musical; make no mistake about that. It's a country musical in the same sense that "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was a country musical, and it contains much the same humor and pathos, if in a gentler vein.
When Altman, the master of ensemble moviemaking, is on, he's very, very good. I hardly need mention "MASH" or "Nashville," but I've always enjoyed "The Long Goodbye," "Popeye," "The Player," even "Gosford Park," as well. OK, so maybe he misfired on a few; "Ready to Wear" and "Dr. T and the Women" come to mind. But he's had more hits than misses. Now, we have a film that lands somewhere in the middle, which for him means it's still pretty decent but far from the top of the pile.
"A Prairie Home Companion," written by and co-starring Keillor and an all-star cast, is wholesome, humorous, song-filled, sad, and nostalgic. There are moments of sublime sweetness amid long stretches of intense blandness. Fans of the Keillor radio show will probably love it. People, like me, who enjoy music will probably like it. People looking for well-developed characterizations and a tight story line will probably hate it.
Keillor's script involves a fictionalized account of his old-timey, down-home, Middle-America radio show doing its last weekly broadcast. Seems a big conglomerate bought it up and is ending it after a thirty-odd-year run. What we get in the movie is that last radio program, broadcast from the same theater, the Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota, that is the home of the actual radio show. So it's a bit of art imitating life.
In addition to a ton of country music, the film is filled with Hollywood stars, folksy humor, and an obsession with death. It's about everything coming to an end--radio shows and people--and accepting change as a natural way of life. To set the tone, in a prelude to the story we hear excerpts from the radio show over the opening titles.
Then we cut to one of the movie's two central characters, Guy Noir, played by Kevin Kline. He's a dim-witted private detective from the 1940s somehow stuck in 2006 and working as the head of security for the radio show. The poor guy couldn't find his feet without looking down. The other central character is Keillor himself, who acts as the MC of the radio program, just as he does on his own real show.
As the program moves along, we meet a variety of other characters, some of them performers in the show, some of them working behind the scenes. First, there are Yolanda and Rhonda, the singing Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), and Yolanda's teenage daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan). The Johnsons are obviously patterned after the Carter family, but, as they say with irony and not a touch of bitterness, not as famous. The mother talks in clichés, homilies and aphorisms, while Lola is a typical rebellious teen, more interested in suicide than in singing.
Then there are Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), a pair of singing cowboys with a somewhat bawdy repertoire. Tommy Lee Jones shows up as the Axeman, a cold corporate suit sent out to close the show. And perhaps best of all is Virginia Madsen as the Angel of Death, who hovers around every scene.
The story moves along slowly, amiably, gently, and sometimes aimlessly. Altman just seems to point his camera at folks as he wanders about the theater during the show, letting everybody improvise. Then he intercuts backstage drama with onstage performances. Of course, there's more to it than that, but that's the impression one gets. Altman attempts to make everything as cozy and warm as possible, while at the same time make a few statements about the ephemeral nature of existence, the end of things and the beginnings of others.
Madsen never looked more stunningly beautiful, having the looks, the glamour, and the allure of a classic, 1940s' movie star. Harrelson and Reilly are easygoing and easy to believe. A commercial for duct tape is one of the funnier parts of the show; and Kline's reserved comic performance is another highlight. He is the last one, for instance, to notice that the script girl (Maya Rudolph) is pregnant. Why in the world didn't Kline play the part of Inspector Clouseau in the latest "Pink Panther" movie instead of Steve Martin?
"A Prairie Home Companion" is essentially a sentimental musical comedy, with the barest rudiments of a story lingering in the background. It has enough going for it to catch some interest, but I wouldn't count on every viewer being able to stick it out for its entire 106-minute running time.
The keep case says the disc is "presented in a format that preserves the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition," except that the film measures a ratio of about 2.15:1 across my widescreen television. The Internet Movie Database says the movie's original camera ratio was 1.78:1 but adjusted for theatrical showing at 2.35:1.
The movie was made using a Sony HDW-F900 digital video camera, shooting at 1080p/24, which, combined with an ordinary bit rate, may explain why the DVD picture looks less than perfect. The colors are glowing golden tones, running big to yellows, browns, and reds, presented in somewhat soft definition, often more than a little dim and obscure, actually. Darker areas of the screen can be downright murky, but, thankfully, grain is at a minimum with the digital photography.
The sound is offered up in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, the DD 5.1 faring far better than the video does. The bass, when needed, can be deep and loud, and the midrange is clear and precise. The surrounds are used for crowd noises, microphone announcements, musical ambience enhancement, and such. When the songs come on, the soundtrack comes to life.
The extras are almost as long as the film, so pay attention. Things begin with "Onstage at the Fitzgerald," a music companion featuring extended performances of musical numbers and fake advertisements from the film. There are twenty-four minutes of songs, ten in all, and five minutes of ads, six in all, that can be played all at once or individually. Next is a forty-nine-minute making-of documentary, "Come Play With Us," divided into six chapters, that again can be played all at once or individually. After that is an audio commentary with director Robert Altman and star Kevin Kline, followed by a soundtrack preview with a full sixteen preview cuts from the album.
Finally, there is an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer (1.78:1); twenty-five scene selections (with a keep-case insert but no chapters printed on it); Sneak Peeks at other New Line releases; English as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles. The keep case also promises "Additional scenes," but if they were there they may have been among the other features because I couldn't find them on their own.
There is really not much to "A Prairie Home Companion." Take away the music, and you haven't got a lot of movie left. Yet much of it is endearing, so it's hard to really dislike it. I can certainly imagine some viewers thinking the whole movie is a boring waste, the way it ambles along in its own good time. I can also see how some viewers might think it takes itself too seriously, its simple life lessons not nearly so profound as it would like us to believe. Good points, which I will not attempt to counter. I can only say that in the long run, parts of the movie touched me. I just wish more of it had.