My roommate walked into the living room while I was watching A Prairie Home Companion, during a duet between Meryl Streep and Garrison Keillor about rhubarb pie, and asked, “oh, is this like A Mighty Wind?” Keillor’s unabashed sincerity can be disconcerting for generations raised on irony and cynicism, but that seems to be, at least partly, what Robert Altman's new film is about.
Ostensibly the film is about a fictional farewell performance of Keillor’s actual long-running radio programme from which the film gets its name. There’s not much of a plot, just a lot of corny jokes and hokey musical numbers that are quite charming in their innocuousness. Backstage there is a fair share of old-fashioned sex, death, and hard-times, but Keillor is careful not to allow any of it to seep into the show. Many, though not all, of Keillor’s regulars have been replaced with an all-star cast that shows off its acting chops and competent singing talents. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, in particular, scintillate as a couple of singing sisters; they have such a delightful, natural rapport that one feels they could just watch them prate all day.
Comparisons with Woody Allen's Radio Days seem apparent, if only because of the subject matter (they both bemoan the decline of radio: as one Prairie characters notes, all you have on the radio after Keillor is "people yelling at you and computers playing music"), but while that film approaches the elegaic, Altman's remarkably eschews sentimentality. Therein lies its greatness: iPods may replace Victrolas, and the internet may supplant band tuners, but the divergence of generations, although it may be unfortunate in some regard, certainly isn't tragic. After all, Lindsay Lohan, as Streep's daughter, still gets up to sing "Frankie and Johnnie", only with her own set of lyrics. The best thing any of us can do is just wear a smile and keep on singing until our time comes.