“Singing is the only thing that puts me right.”
Rush Limbaugh and his abusive ilk notwithstanding, radio as a medium is tolerant, forgiving and kind. To air on radio is human, a disembodied voice remaining fit and trim long after the body goes South. Unlike the merciless camera, a radio mic doesn’t care if you slouch, wear suspenders, or style your hair using scissors and bowel. You can even go around with your “barn door open.” Radio protects or exposes in its own special way — at its best recreating the soulful intimacy of ancient storytelling fires, “sparks flying in the air.” So opines the corporate Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a sardonic disbeliever sent to terminate a radio show remarkably similar to Keillor’s own “A Prairie Home Companion.” But surely Jones is just a feckless, mean man. After all, in Radio Land — that sightless kingdom — homely Garrison Keillor is a two-eyed King.
Keillor has often been called the modern Mark Twain of the liberal airwaves, his honeyed bass baritone instantly recognizable to any fan of public broadcasting. His live, stage broadcasts of “A Prairie Home Companion” show him savvy before a theatrical audience as well. So, if one were to try to adapt the distinctive charm of Keillor’s radio show into a potentially hostile film medium, one would be wise to take up that interim position — the existing convention of the live staged broadcast. Indeed. And that is what Keillor and Robert Altman do. They recreate the sensation of attending a live stage broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” — already a very open, collaborative affair — then add on an extra camera-enabled sneak peek behind the risers and wings. To this, screenwriter Keillor adds yet another extra layer of frivolous fictionality featuring Guy Noir, this time embodied by actor Kevin Kline instead of merely voiced, as he is on the radio, by Keillor himself. Guy Noir — his visible version — creeps around looking for a Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen) who seems to have mortality on her mind.
The most gratifying and surprising facet of Altman’s new film A Prairie Home Companion is the striking congruence of Garrison Keillor’s aesthetic with Altman’s own and vice versa. Regardless of how the two Great Men did or did not get along personally on the shoot, each artist’s canon serves to clarify the other’s. The film is decidedly Keillor’s — he wrote the screenplay; he, of course, conceived the original radio show, which is dominated by his distinctive persona and Big and Tall ego. The plotting here is often sophomoric — just about the level of a Guy Noir segment. And yet somehow Keillor and Altman wring occasional pathos out of it. The film is also recognizably Altman’s: the postmodern, fragmentary structure we associate with him — plus those overlapping dialogues and episodic minidramas. Its weakness is its lack of depth in characterization, especially compared to Altman’s early masterwork Nashville (1957), the film it most resembles. Here Keillor and Altman’s characters fade in and out as quickly as low-wattage radio stations on a cross-country car ride. The film is much less caustic than Nashville (1975) where Altman’s closet contempt for Country and Western music eventually outweighs his fascination. Keillor — bless his tall, liberal heart — does convincingly love the Common Man — just so long as that man isn’t Jesse Ventura.
One linkage between Keillor and Altman is the two artists’ shared love for improv and brinksmanship: be it hitting one’s mark onstage at the very last possible moment before curtain rise or, in Altman’s case, habitually beginning multimillion-dollar film shoots without a final script. The show-within-a-show portion of this film begins, in fact, with a frantic, suspenseful countdown until Air Time, which makes the poor assistant stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph) and us as viewers into nervous wrecks. It has just the opposite effect on Keillor and his folksy kind: they linger, loiter, sing a backstage song or two or three. Still they hit their cues, stepping up to the mics with milliseconds to spare. Folksy does not equal slow or dumb. Their countrified timing is as precise as that of trapeze artists. Think Fred Astaire “casually” dancing with a prop or cane.
The offstage/onstage dialectic is complemented by several successful character pairings. Guy Noir (Kline) goes the lion’s share of the visual comedy: pratfalls, fingers stuck in drawers, straight up Stooges stuff. He also gets the super-hokey pseudo film noir lines such as “She had a smile so sweet you could have poured it on your pancakes.” Kline pulls it off, barely. He’s a trained physical comic rather than a natural. Madsen gets to be decorative and mysterious, but her white trench coat does most of the acting. Both “fictitious” characters move around freely onstage and off but never take the magic mic.
The Johnson Girls, a couple of sisters played by Meryl Streep (as Yolanda) and Lily Tomlin (as Rhonda), are the anchoring duo of the film — really a trio when you add in their junior partner Lindsay Lohan as Streep’s angst-ridden adolescent daughter Lola. The Johnson Girls are the remnant of a whole singing family (“Like the Carter Family,” explains Yolanda, “only not famous”). Streep of the wonderful accents and alabaster skin sits backstage moisturizing and reminiscing. Tomlin, looking 30 years worldly-wiser than her Nashville character Linnea Reese, likewise carps and chatters away with Streep. When they do go onstage and finally take the mics, they merely cease to moisturize. Reminiscing about Momma and the rest of the clan is their act, and they’re marvelous at it. Streep exudes warmth — singing and talking country-style just as naturally as a Carter Clan clone. Tomlin, the tougher sister, defers to Yolanda’s better voice and her intimate history with Keillor — poking fun at his own Lothario rep. Lindsay Lohan, the trendiest member of the cast, is appropriately self-obsessed but sweet. Widely known for her emphasis on motherhood in real life, Streep uses her built-in backstory to mother Lohan for all she’s worth. Streep’s clucking response to Lohan’s suicide poem is priceless, as is the poem itself. Its punchline — “The toast is you” — is one of several ongoing absurdist/existentialist jokes that contribute to the “Life-is-tough-and-then-you-croak” through-line of the film. The philosophy lesson begins with Keillor’s remark, “Every show’s your last show. That’s my philosophy.” Tomlin’s Rhonda punctures that one with “Thank you, Plato.”
Another same-sex duo co-anchors the film — those potty-mouthed cowboy singers and jokesters Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly). They’re the “Pachelbels of the Prairie,” the “Brahms(es) of the Bunkhouse.” Besides dissing each other and flirting with anything female, the boys spend their time, offstage and on, singing, lying, and storytelling, the latter two activities nicely merged into one. Says Dusty in mock defensiveness, “I never told one lie that was not my own.” Harrelson — chewing a cheroot and the scenery — also gets the immortal line: “You can’t put Descartes before the horse.”
Who gets high-tone groaners such as these?
Public radio listeners do. Avid Altman fans do. Unfortunately for box office figures, these two groups are likely one and the same. A few hardcore Keillor fans may be angry that he omits the News from Lake Wobegon segment so beloved of his radio listeners. A film that could truly capture that imaginary community would be as tough to pull off as one doing justice to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
Conservatives will appreciate this movie about as much as a tax increase. Unlike the populist cant in Nashville, there are few overtly political statements here. Dusty does go on about Texans — “their eyes don’t focus and their flesh is rotting.” But that doesn’t make him a Dubya-hater, now does it? An aging Romeo (character actor L. Q. Jones) does die in his underwear, awaiting illicit sex with the Lunch Lady (Marylouise Burke). But surely that alone does not render Keillor the Anti-Christ.
What will truly irk Red-Staters who wander by chance into a showing of this film is the sense of being warmly enveloped into a touchy-feely long-haired in-group whose values simply don’t coincide with their own. Most maddening is Keillor’s way of co-opting spiritual values — often embodied in songs — that right-wing Christians claim for theirs alone. An unholy mixture of flatulence jokes and gospel music will indeed offend a Manichean mind. The super-hip will also likely turn away, Keillor and Altman’s moments of pathos (in songs such as “Momma”) straying mighty close to the Schmaltzville city line. But there — protecting that razor’s edge between affectionate satire and mocking contempt— stand folks like Robin and Linda Williams, consummate country musicians strumming on the old banjo … and guitar. They and all the rest of Keillor’s regular radio cast keep it real every time they play. They provide the continuo to Keillor’s sometimes silly, sometimes virtuoso riffs just by being their warm, solid, countrified selves. We are all embraced into the final radio show’s poignant final number “In the Sweet By and By” — a true contrast with Nashville‘s nihilistic finale “It Don’t Worry Me.” Even Lindsay Lohan’s character — obviously fed on Powdermilk Biscuits — is a shy person who has found the strength to get up and do what’s necessary. When you’re handed life’s metaphorical mic, take a sweet old song and improvise.