A Prairie Home Companion’s story is very simple. A large company has bought the theatre and radio station that has been home to A Prairie Home Companion, a thirty-year-old homespun Mid-Western radio variety show, hosted by the eccentric GK. Week after week the tightly knit cast has told corny jokes and sung songs that range from old hat to heartfelt for a faithful audience. It is the end of an era but GK refuses to acknowledge the gravity of the night. “Every show is your last show,” he says. “That’s my philosophy.” Luckily director Robert Altman does imbue the proceedings with some weight.
The eighty-plus Altman has been making films for more than fifty years and is still one of the most distinctive filmmakers going. His style, with its long uninterrupted tracking shots with lots of over-lapping dialogue perfectly captures the chaotic goings-on backstage and the loping rhythms of the performers onstage. In a summer filled with slick action pictures Altman’s film feels old fashioned, handmade almost, and that’s a good thing. The movie is so easy going and so enjoyable that it doesn’t draw attention to how beautifully it is made.
Altman has populated the cast with eccentric characters—Guy Noir, the bumbling security guard who seems to have read one too many Raymond Chandler novels; Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, the two surviving members of what was once a family singing act and the Dangerous Woman, an angel who appears on earth in the form of a woman who died while listening to the show—but somehow manages to balance the real human drama with the more ephemeral aspects of the story.
A Prairie Home Companion is so much more than a radio variety show on film. Altman turns the simple story into an allegory about death –with jokes. It’s a touching portrait of the end of a simpler era made by an 81 year-old man who understands the past and is astute enough to look into the future.