Blending reality and fiction has always been a staple of Robert Altman’s work, expertly creating worlds where people play versions of themselves and mingle seamlessly with fictional characters. The Player did for Hollywood what Prêt-À-Porter did for fashion and now, as his swansong, what A Prairie Home Companion does for radio.
The problem, though, particularly for British viewers, is the relatively obscure nature of Prairie’s inspiration – a real-life live variety show that’s been a Saturday afternoon mainstay of America’s national public radio for three decades. The movie is so steeped in the past that it comes across like a period piece. Indeed when aspiring performer Lola (Lindsay Lohan taking her first tentative steps into grown-up movie territory) pulls out her mobile, it feels like a prop error – like seeing Ben-Hur kicking back with his iPod.
Prairie is a gentle movie, set primarily in Minnesota’s Fitzgerald Theatre, the real home of the radio show. It’s here we meet the show-within-a-show’s cast, headed by hangdog MC Garrison Keillor. Keillor’s a man with a perfect face for radio and the real-life host and creator of Prairie, presiding over a rag-bag assortment of performers. Among them are lewd singing cowboys The Old Trailhands (Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly) and country sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin).
With the arrival of Lee Jones’ The Axeman – a ruthless businessman determined to pull down the theatre – we become aware that it’s not just old country songs that are being murdered here. Death is hovering over the entire proceedings: the death of the theatre, the death of the show and the literal death of a cast member (“The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” opines the awaiting angel). Ironic, or Altman staring his imminent demise in the eye? Either way it adds a real poignancy.
Minus the warm glow of nostalgia, Prairie crackles like an AM radio in search of a signal - blips of pure magic but fails to always tune in.