After being sold, a local radio station in St. Paul, Minnesota airs its last musical evening of downhome country and folksy corn. Hosted by Garrison Keillor (playing himself), its broadcast live from a faded theatre.
The last film by maverick master Robert Altman, who died recently aged 81, is a recognisably Altmanesque piece, a musical character mosaic and rueful comic fable in meditative mood, with intimations of death that are eerily poignant.
Kevin Kline serves as the amusingly hard-boiled narrator, a Chandler-like gumshoe named Guy Noir, employed as security man at Garrison Keillor’s weekly variety show. This artefact of Americana features sly cultural commentary in its adverts for local sponsors and in its line-up of artists, including Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the poor man’s Judds) and singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly). Backstage, Yolanda’s country-Goth daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) writes poems about suicide; the pregnant assistant stage manager is run ragged wrangling performers, and the sandwich lady is in the mood for love.
When Virginia Madsen’s femme, who is literally fatale, turns up in a white trench coat and only Noir can see her, her touch portends imminent departure for someone — ah, but who? — to the celestial opry. Then Tommy Lee Jones materialises as corporate grinch The Axeman, such a Texan philistine he doesn’t know who F. Scott Fitzgerald is when a bust of St. Paul’s most illustrious son catches his eye in the theatre’s VIP box.
Garrison Keillor, a celebrated storyteller who has been broadcasting his real Prairie Home Companion programme for 30 years, forsakes his characteristic monologues to preside as observer/arbiter. His tall tales come to life in the corridors and dressing rooms where reminiscence, rumour, trysts and petty squabbles keep the down but undefeated show folk dialoguing in gently spirited humane and cultural vignettes.
As with Kansas City and Nashville, Altman develops a unifying commentary and brings the film to life with the music. ‘House band’ The Guys All-Star Shoe Band and authentic artists like gospel belter Jearlyn Steele provide a wonderful aural tapestry while the ensemble get their seemingly spontaneous stories on. Streep, no mean singer herself, is an unsurprising standout, but Harrelson and Reilly are a hoot as the tobacco-chewing duo whose toe-curling showstopper, Bad Jokes, is a comic highlight.
Not one of Altmans masterpieces, but aficionados will find pleasures in a bittersweet swansong from the grand old man.