There is a kind of forced timelessness about A Prairie Home Companion, but even more so the film has an ambiguity when it comes to time. The film begins with the sound of a radio dial being turned from station to station, evoking a classic feeling of nostalgia until slowly more modern sounds are blended in through certain stations, most notable being the traffic report from a helicopter. The next image is of a diner as our narrator Guy Noir, a private eye, is having his dinner before he goes to work as a security guard at the radio program. As if the name and the private detective narration isn’t enough of a hint, Altman is making reference to a certain time; a time when people ate in streetcar diners and dark detective and film noir stories were popular. Just as quickly we begin to see more modern elements within the world, seeping into the radio station as they broadcast their last show.
The cast of characters traipsing on and off stage during the final broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion is what keeps the film moving in between the musical numbers. We begin with Guy Noir who is played by Kevin Kline. Guy is a private eye who is fascinated by a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) who comes back stage for the last performance. Through the whole film Guy talks like he is reading straight from a detective novel. John C Reilly and Woody Harrelson are Lefty and Dusty, the Old Trailhands, and they always leave you wanting more. Their interactions with each other, both in the constant bickering and competitiveness as well as the contrast of their performing together has the feeling of two people that have known each other for years. Reilly is especially fabulous onstage and Harrelson has his fun when they stop singing.
There is also Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda. These two go to town with Altman’s freeing direction style (he claims to encourage improvising so much that he never even read the film’s script before shooting), often chatting away with each other in such a believable and realistic way that it becomes believable to the point of irritating. Lindsay Lohan is a stark contrast as Yolanda’s daughter, Lola, who is more interested in writing songs about suicide than her mother’s constant chatter. The sisters are too much too bear at times, more annoying and frighteningly familiar than they are fun to watch.
The DVD will be especially appealing to fans of the music in the film. There are extended musical segments as well as the advertisements. The songs are played in their entirety and the musicians are on display. Much of the footage just seems like director Robert Altman was having a ball filming while the musicians showed their stuff. The amount is so overwhelming that it is clear that they couldn’t have ever expected it all to make it into the film. There is also a behind-the-scenes featurette and a commentary track with Altman and Kevin Kline, and some deleted scenes.
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 9/10
Disc Features: 8/10