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Altman's 'Prairie Home' Is Companionable -- but Must We See Such Things?

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

On the radio, "A Prairie Home Companion" summons memories of stories told by the favorite uncle you never had and songs sung by your mama, who didn't sing.

Onstage, "A Prairie Home Companion" looks like what you'd imagine an old-time radio show would be, with a house band, a genuine sound-effects man, a diffident, brilliant host and a wizened old roadie.

And now on the silver screen, Robert Altman brings us his vision of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," and it looks like the radio and stage versions, with the pleasant addition of Altman's trademark layered improv by celebrity actors and the unsettling subtraction of the listener's imagination.

For more than three decades, "Prairie Home" has been the Saturday night church service of public radio, a two-hour variety show broadcast live from St. Paul, Minn., or from stages in Austin, in the Berkshires, at Wolf Trap and so on through the markets of NPR America.

Keillor's writerly, Midwestern twist on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and other such radio classics caused a splash in its early years. It was so surprising to find a creative pulse on the radio that Keillor made the cover of Time magazine in 1985 (this was once an important barometer of cultural impact).

But for many years now, Keillor and his show have been content to be a constant in the lives of those who love it expressly for its aversion to the trendy. "There's no buzz about the show whatsoever," Keillor told me when I traveled with the show in 1998, "and that's actually much better for the audience and, God knows, for me. It's not a steppingstone to anything."

Eight years later, the received wisdom in the media world is that that which does not have buzz is destined to die, and so now there is Prairie Home: The Movie. But the film that opens June 9 is not a mere repurposing, not another foolish lunge after the highly vaunted media synergy that hardly ever seems to pay off, artistically or commercially. This is an Altman film, and for Keillor's institution that means the marriage of two artists with distinctive styles in media that are almost contradictory in their expectations of the audience.

Radio provides its audience with the raw materials from which they mold their own fantasies, using love songs, the elasticity of the human voice and the mysteries of the unseen narrator to conjure images in their own minds. Film also engages the imagination, but it provides the landscapes and characters and asks only that the viewer take momentary leave of his own life and enter the moviemaker's screen reality.

Putting a radio show on the screen ruins much of radio's mystery. If the faces and behavior of Keillor, sound effects man Tom Keith, bandleader Rich Dworsky and the other members of the radio cast do not match the images listeners had concocted in their own minds, then some of the romance of the radio show is lost forever. And Keillor's is an especially evocative voice, one that does not particularly match up to his hangdog look and shy, almost aloof manner.

Altman at least does not seek to turn any of the "Prairie Home" regulars into anything other than what they seem to be on the radio. And he insinuates his cast of celebrities into the show as if they were heard every week on your favorite public radio station. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are especially credible and alluring as the Johnson Sisters, a down-homey gospel act on the descent. They, along with Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the Old Trailhands -- a singing cowboy act with a bawdiness that would never get past the taste police on public radio -- succeed in creating the kinds of characters you'd expect as guests on the radio show, which is heard Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. on WETA (90.9 FM). (Today's broadcast comes from this weekend's live performance at Wolf Trap.)

Although you watch the movie half-knowing that the musicians who regularly appear on Keillor's show surely aren't nearly as intriguing or delightful as these characters, the leap is a fair one -- until you get to the plotline that Altman and Keillor have stapled onto the standard "Prairie Home" variety show.

The screenplay, written by Keillor, sounds like one of his short stories. It's a spoof on old radio dramas, complete with a classic Keillor character, Guy Noir, Private Eye (here reworked into a security guard for the radio show and played by Kevin Kline), but it also inserts a bit of supernatural in the form of the Dangerous Woman (an angel -- literally -- played by Virginia Madsen). And to shoehorn in a bit of topicality, the story is framed by the acquisition of "Prairie Home's" station, WLT, by an evil corporate conglomerate from Texas (that would be Clear Channel, the behemoth of commercial radio), which naturally aims to kill off Keillor's show.

Pretty soon, says the show's makeup lady, played by Keillor's real-life producer, Sue Scott, "there won't be anything left on the radio except for people yelling at you and computers playing music."

But the invasion of the big bad media company just sort of happens and there's not much said about it other than that old-time radio is good and newfangled corporate dictates are bad.

The rest of the movie is a clash between Keillor's sweet parodies of commerce and media and Altman's hyperreal riffs on loss and love. If it sounds like something of a mess, it is, but like live radio, it's riveting even when -- and because -- it's all over the place.

What's missing in the movie is the centerpiece of "Prairie Home," one of Keillor's monologues, fantasies of an America that never quite was, stories that the audience conspires to accept as real. In those moments, a community forms, which is what keeps the show alive and passed along from generation to generation.

But for that, you have to close your eyes and listen to the original form of "Prairie Home" -- on the radio.

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