2006-06-23 / Columnists


'A Prairie Home Companion' - Radio Reigns
By Robert Snyder

There's something to be said for the radio shows of yesteryear. And Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" says it all.

Before television where everything is literally in your face, radio left all to your ear and mind's eye. The dramas and comedies with authentic sound effects used the audience's imagination as the canvas. In other words, it was limitless in scope... bigger than IMAX. Orson Welles went wild with it, creating an intergalactic "War of the Worlds," which fooled listeners into believing the battle was happening in their own backyards.

However, for the past 30 years, author/singer/raconteur Garrison Keillor has been orchestrating a more low-key world of folksy entertainment, spiced with country-western songs, comic mysteries and great storytelling. "A Prairie Home Companion" is the perfect tapestry for cinematic brush of legendary filmmaker Altman ("M.A.S.H.," "Nashville"). In fact, his film seems almost effortless in execution, although it's far from it, incorporating his patented overlapping dialogue and probing camerawork.

His cast appears to be having the time of their lives. And what a cast. Meryl Streep teaming up with Lily Tomlin as the Johnson Sisters (Yolanda and Rhonda). Once a foursome, they claim, "The Carter family was like us, only famous." Lindsay Lohan is Yolanda's daughter, Lola, who writes songs on one subject only - suicide and/or death. Then, we have the pre-"Brokeback Mountain" cowboy duo, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), singers of off-color songs of the range. Haunting the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, where PHC company is performing its last show, is the spirit of the famous author himself. He's personified by Kevin Kline in the role of over-the-hill Private Eye Guy Noir and by Fitzgerald's bust, which the gumshoe keeps nearby. Also hovering around the theater is the Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen), or the Angel of Death. She knocks off aging C&W artist Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones) after his swan song and corporate henchman Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), before he can close down the theater.

But central to it all is G.K. (Keillor) who, like Altman, is effortless in his execution of old-time Americana entertainment...something that will never die.

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