|Traffic | Weather | Your account||Movies | Restaurants | Today's events|
"A Prairie Home Companion": Slim plot, but it's all about the music, anyway
Seattle Times movie critic
"Singing is the only thing that puts me right," sighs Rhonda Johnson (Lily Tomlin), and that's as good a description as any for Robert Altman's infectiously tuneful "A Prairie Home Companion." It's a tribute to music's power to heal us, to the way a familiar tune brings a comfortable old-shoe smile and the way a group sing-along bonds those within it, creating a community in that moment.
OK, wait a minute, you're saying — isn't it about Garrison Keillor's public-radio variety show?
Well, yes. But Altman's "Prairie Home Companion," scripted by Keillor, is interested in something else, something that radio can't do: showing us glorious actors made impossibly beautiful by a camera's light (Virginia Madsen, in particular, will take your breath away), working together as a true ensemble.
If we were to only hear this version of "A Prairie Home Companion," it would sound just fine (except, that is, for Keillor's somewhat strained vocals). But we'd miss the way that Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep), sharing the microphone with a former lover (Keillor, playing a version of himself), gazes to the side and sings in an offhand, mildly annoyed way, and it still sounds perfect — singing, to her, is like breathing. Or the way Yolanda and Rhonda, singing together in the dressing room, know exactly what the other's going to do; the easy intimacy of grown siblings for whom song is a language. Or the nervous, skittery energy of Yolanda's teenage daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan), pushed onto the stage to make her singing debut. Or the way Keillor, singing a love duet with Yolanda, holds his body still and stares fixedly at her, like he can't believe his good fortune.
Like his previous film "The Company," Altman's "Companion" doesn't have much of a story; the whippet-thin plot involves a conglomerate buying the radio station, thus making this performance of "A Prairie Home Companion" its last. Love, death and song visit the show's various guests; by the end, in a joyous sing-along of "In the Sweet By and By," they are one.
Along the way, followed by an ever-moving camera, we're treated to some marvelous performances. Streep and Tomlin perform a dazzling high-wire act, their voices looping and weaving around each other as stories spill out of them in that trademark Altmanesque, overlapping way. Kevin Kline, as security guard/gumshoe Guy Noir, speaks like an old-time detective novel and dresses like a '40s movie star; he's debonairly pleased with himself. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly seem to be having a ball as singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty. And weaving it all together is Keillor's unmistakable voice, which slips down like ice cream on a sore throat.
"A Prairie Home Companion" occasionally falters; when the nonacting singers (regulars from the real radio show) perform, the drama stops and the movie becomes simply a filmed concert. But when it's clicking, it's a dream.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company