In his great Nashville, Robert Altman mocked the country settings for their theme-park churchiness, but he knew that the musicians — like Ronee Blakley, with her tender twang of heartbreak — had a true spirit. They were humane and beautiful because they were so touchingly themselves. The performances in Altman’s film of A Prairie Home Companion work the same way. This time, though, we’re watching the funny, folksy equivalent of chamber music — the Grand Ole Opry in small-town miniature — and what’s happening off stage is of no great consequence.
It merely decorates the show at its center. A Prairie Home Companion is a minor bauble of an Altman movie, a lightly fictionalized version of Garrison Keillor’s fabled public-radio variety show, which was first broadcast on July 6, 1974. The conceit is that we’re watching the farewell performance of Prairie Home, which is portrayed not as the national phenomenon it has been for decades but merely as an obscure local concoction broadcast onto a single Minnesota station. Early on, Keillor, who’s like the world’s most whimsical undertaker, with prim pursed lips and a head shaped like a giant thumb, hangs out backstage, slipping on his suspendered pants and red sneakers and gabbing, in his soft quicksilver way, to one of the performers, Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep), about singing ”Gold Watch & Chain” that evening. For a moment, they harmonize, and they’re like birds lining up in the sky; it’s comic how in sync they are, as if they’d never not been singing that song. Later, between Keillor’s soothing pre-media-age commercials for duct tape and Norwegian biscuits, they perform the number on stage, and what strikes you is how supremely lovely it is — this sweet, ticktock confession of romantic pain, delivered with no fuss, as if it were another commercial, a plug for the variety show that is life.
As everyone waits for the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), the movie begs to be taken for what it is: the radio show writ large. The film’s minor delight is the way it frames and heightens what’s special about A Prairie Home Companion — its celebration of idiosyncrasy in a world now ruled by corporate culture, with its packaged ”quirks” (e.g., American Idol). As the night rolls on, the spirit of the concert builds, from Streep and Lily Tomlin as the old-broad Johnson sisters to Tom Keith, the sound-effects guy, doing madcap miracles with his mouth; from Lindsay Lohan, as Streep’s depressive-chic daughter, lending an appealing quaver to ”Frankie & Johnny,” to cowboys Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly getting more laughs than you’d believe out of ”Bad Jokes.” The group performance of ”Let Your Light Shine on Me” has a gospel ecstasy. Altman, working from Keillor’s wisp of a script, employs his fabled techniques — the improv babble, the camera zooms that seem to orbit a room — but there isn’t a lot of drama to A Prairie Home Companion. What sustains the film is the performers’ belief in their shaggy-dog selves, which is more than just talent — it’s faith.