Sunday, March 08, 2009

Film Review - A Prairie Home Companion

If you decided to stay in tonight and watch some TV... you probably noticed that there was not much on. That's how I felt earlier on anyway, when I did a quick flick through the schedule.... and pretty much gave up. But... I had missed a little gem hidden away, as often happens.

I'd been busy researching some stuff and didn't get round to supper till late. When I settled down to enjoy my late dinner, I had another flick through, as you do, and came across this great film hidden away late on BBC2.... and was immediately drawn into... 'A Prairie Home Companion'.

For starters, the film has an incredible cast... Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen plus a few other well known names and faces! How's that for a cast?

Robert Altman (directs) and Garrison Keillor (who wrote the screenplay and plays a fictional version of himself) combine reality and fantasy in this smooth, ebullient take on the long-running Prairie Home Companion (PHC) radio show.

In a review over at Amazon, Doug Thomas saves me the trouble and explains the film perfectly:

Set during the show's fictitious last broadcast, the host station has been bought, the film has plenty of elements from the real PHC radiocasts, including a live audience and the sensational Shoe band.

The onstage program is mostly music numbers, a beguiling mix of standards and old-style country, with Streep once more showing her amazing range of talents, here singing as well as she did in 'Mama Mia', as does Lily Tomlin.

However, the show's usual comedy sketches are never presented, save for the commercial parodies. This may be a PHC show, but Lake Wobegon Days (also a book by Garrison Keillor) is never mentioned. Instead, the sketches are played out as backstage banter that features the Johnson Sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), a harried stage hand (Maya Rudolph), a former listener turned angel (Virginia Madsen) and Keillor himself (a crusty alter-ego named simply G.K.).

A few characters from the real PHC are given life: the singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty and gumshoe Guy Noir are embodied by Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and Kevin Kline, respectively. Old flames are fanned, stories are spun, new talents are found (Lindsay Lohan has a chance to shine as Streep's daughter) and everyone wonders if G.K. will do something to ebb the tide of cancellation, personified by Tommy Lee Jones as the corporate Axeman.

All of the actors do right as singers, and seem to be having the time of their life. Keillor's screenplay is perfect fodder for Altman's usual brand of storytelling, as characters babble on with the camera picking them up often in mid-thought.

The film originally appeared a few months after Altman received an honorary Oscar, and the director is still at the top of his game, creating this smile-inducing, song-filled time, ending with an ethereal last musical number.

I thoroughly enjoyed it... and I hope you do too... during one of these slow nights on telly!