When Robert Altman accepted the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006, he didn’t want to talk about endings. “I always thought this type of award meant that it was over,” he said, “[but] I was doing an interview for my new film that I just finished, A Prairie Home Companion, which will come out in the summer…And I realized that it’s not over.” Altman went on to thank the hundreds of cast and crew members who supported him over his 60-year career. He couldn’t remember all of their names, so instead, he thanked his doctor, Jodie Kaplan. He concluded his speech by assuring the audience that the award was a fluke anyway. Altman had undergone a heart transplant 10 years earlier, he explained, and because his donor heart was from a woman in her 30s, he felt that the award had come too early. “By my calculation,” he says “I’ve got about 40 years left on it and I intend to use it!”
Despite what he told the Academy that night, Altman knew he did not have 40 years left. A Prairie Home Companion premiered in June of 2006, while he was in the midst of treatments for the leukemia that would claim his life in November of the same year. A Prairie Home Companion would be his final film.
At the time of the film’s premiere, critics questioned why Altman, whose career was characterized by expansive, genre-defying films, was attracted to a story about “A Prairie Home Companion.” It was, after all, a live radio variety show—a mode of entertainment that had its heyday in Altman’s childhood—that featured jingles for canned beans and songs that seem more at home at a church picnic than on the big screen. But 15 years after its premiere, and Altman’s passing, A Prairie Home Companion remains his consummate farewell. It is a tender meditation on music, memory and death that holds Altman’s final goodbye inside it like a fly in amber, preserved for all who will listen.
“Every show is your last show. That’s my philosophy.” – Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
In his Oscar speech, Altman said that he considered that his 60-year career had really been “one long film.” For its final act, he made a musical.
Musicals occupy a small but important corner of Altman’s filmography. His 1975 film Nashville, largely considered his opus, boasts more songs than performers. Other pseudo-musicals like 1979’s A Perfect Couple, 1980’s Popeye, and 1996’s Kansas City—which Altman counseled should be considered “a sort of jazz” in its entirety—worked less well. The fault was not necessarily in the music itself, but in the fact that the music seemed to be compensating for thin scripts and poor concepts. Nashville, on the other hand, is a movie about performing—far from distracting from the action, music is the action.
It is this quality that led Altman to see A Prairie Home Companion as Nashville’s natural successor. As he explained it, both movies played on one of his favorite themes: Hey we’ve got some old costumes up in the barn, let’s put on a show! In Nashville, the company is assembled to help start something—playing a campaign rally for a third-party presidential candidate. In A Prairie Home Companion, the company is gathered for an ending: the final broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. The theater is set to be demolished and replaced with a parking garage directly after the final curtain. It’s a brutal end for a tender relic of old-fashioned show business, but Garrison Keillor—who wrote the film’s screenplay in addition to playing himself—is determined not to acknowledge the show is over. Devoid of closure from their host, the company reminisces about the early days of radio and their time on the stage. When in doubt, they sing about it.
Like Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon or Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, A Prairie Home Companion is a backstage story, where offstage intrigue, drama, and hijinks often find their climax and conclusion onstage. In classic movie musicals, there is a definitive contrast between offstage singing (think Gene Kelly dancing with lampposts) and onstage singing (think the interstitial “Between The Devil” musical numbers in The Band Wagon). In classic musicals, the characters sing and dance as themselves offstage, but assume the guise of new characters under the lights. In A Prairie Home Companion, the lines are less distinct. The characters are themselves, onstage and off. Music is merely another interrupting voice, which weaves into the symphony of Altman’s surround sound dialogue and brings the company into the light, whether they’re ready or not.
Among the singing members of the cast are the Johnson Sisters, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep), the two remaining hold-outs of a four-person family band who spend their time trying to process the death of their mother and the dissolution of their act. There is Yolanda’s teenage daughter, Lola (Lindsey Lohan), who takes a break from writing poems about suicide in her composition book to sing a mostly-improvised version of “Frankie and Johnny,” which is also about suicide. There are Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), a wisecracking cowboy duo who spend their offstage time singing explicit drinking songs and their onstage time singing explicit drinking songs more loudly. There’s Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones), the aged country music heartthrob carrying on an elicit showmance with the show’s lunch lady. And then there are the real members of the “Prairie Home Companion” company—including Jearlyn Steele, Robin and Linda Williams, and Keillor himself, who sing songs like “Slow Days of Summer” and “Old Plank Road,” hallmarks of the real-life radio broadcast.
Most of the performers in the film are not primarily singers, but all of the film’s musical performances retain the ease and naturalism that is characteristic of Altman’s work. You do not need to suspend any disbelief to see the cast—both celebrity and civilian—as members of a real, working company. They drift on stage, often late, sometimes lost in a story or conversation that comes to an abrupt halt when the music starts. When the song is over, they drift off stage again for a ham salad sandwich. The musical performances are genuine, collaborative and tender. You can almost feel Altman’s pride radiating from behind the camera: his utter love for watching performers, his triumph at seeing his actors transform into real-life musicians in front of his eyes. Streep’s mezzo blends beautifully with Tomlin’s surprising contralto on “My Minnesota Home.” Harrelson and Reilly are both shockingly competent guitarists who sound like they have been performing as a road act for years. Even Keillor’s duet with Streep on the folk classic “Gold Watch And Chain” sounds right at home—though their doomed romantic relationship feels like a stretch of Keillor’s imagination.
Lola: What if you die some day? Garrison: I will die. Lola: Don’t you want people to remember you? Garrison: I don’t want them to be told to remember me.
When the characters in A Prairie Home Companion are not onstage singing they are offstage remembering. Rhonda and Yolanda regale Lola with tales of their time on the county fair circuit. Keillor has an endless supply of stories about how he got his start in radio, though he can’t seem to remember if it was on “The Rise and Shine Show” or the “Happy Baked Beans Radio Hour.” And for each memory, there is a song. Keillor mentions an old sponsor, Piscacadawadaquoddymoggin, and Robin and Linda Williams answer immediately with the jingle. There is a stubbornness in all this remembering. The company trades tidbits of the past like a game of keepaway, determined to keep the ball aloft, to stop themselves from acknowledging the end that they are facing down.
The film itself is an exercise in memory. By borrowing the format of its real-life radio counterpart, it also inherits its homespun nostalgia. The old-fashioned directional microphones and “on air” sign are borrowed from the real radio show, as are the fake antiquated sponsors and old-timey jingles. The show’s real-life stage manager Tim Russell, foley sound artist Tom Keith, and makeup artist Sue Scott all play themselves in the film. The action is also presided over by Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a fully-realized version of the old-fashioned gumshoe serialized on many “Prairie Home Companion” broadcasts, who chaperones the story with James Cain-esque interjections and vaudevillian sight gags.
The familiarity of the show borders on morbid. At the time that Keillor wrote the film’s screenplay, the real-life “A Prairie Home Companion” was still very much on the air, with Keillor at its helm. Its imagined end at the hands of a faceless Texan corporation reads as a hunger pang, a rehearsal for an ending still to come.1
This unique blend of nostalgia and fatalism is perhaps one of the qualities that drew Altman to Keillor as a collaborator. Keillor initially approached Altman about making a film version of his audio memoir Lake Wobegon. It was Altman’s idea to make a film of the show itself, casting recognizable actors that would cue the audience into the fact that it was not a documentary. For Altman, who spent most of his career labeled an “alternative” filmmaker despite his critical successes, it is easy to see the nobility in “A Prairie Home Companion,” dutifully protecting analog entertainment while digital excess laps at its heels. It is clear that the show will end someday, just as the movie supposes, and Altman does not shy away from delivering the funeral rites. In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, “There’s a sense of elegy in the film. A sense that something wonderful is coming to an end, and the way to handle that is not to regret it, but to treasure the memories.”
“Death is easy, like jumping into the big blue air and waving hello to God.”
It’s not just radio that is dying in A Prairie Home Companion. As the final broadcast goes on, there is an angel waiting in the wings. Unlike the show’s company, the Angel (Virginia Madsen) cannot seem to remember much of anything. Not the word for “mayonnaise,” nor the story that Garrison Keillor was telling on the radio the night she drove her car off the road. The film’s credits call her “The Dangerous Woman” but she introduces herself to Guy Noir as the Angel Asphodel, who has been sent back to the Fitzgerald Theater to take another soul home to see God.
Asphodel looks the part. She has blonde ringlets and speaks in Christian platitudes about mercy, the fullness of time and the Holy Spirit. Salvation has no place in show business, but Asphodel is a personification of a Christian undercurrent that flows through the film. Half of the songs in the film are hymns, and the Johnson Sisters have made a career singing for Christian county fair audiences. Asphodel has come for Chuck Akers, the aging country star, but her larger goal is to urge the company and the audience to take comfort in the ending. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” she tells Chuck’s grieving lover. “Forgive him his shortcomings and thank him for all his love and care.” As Asphodel accepts Chuck’s soul backstage, Robin and Linda Williams sing the hymn “Let Your Light Shine on Me,” a jubilant banjo tune promising a better day.
When Asphodel leaves, another specter quickly takes her place. He is the Axeman, a representative of the big bad Texas corporation that bought the radio station. The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) has come to make sure that the end of the show proceeds as planned. Unlike Asphodel, who was a fan of the show when she was alive, the Axeman is not charmed. “It’s like a time warp,” he tells Guy Noir. “I feel like an anthropologist finding some primitive tribe crouched around a fire telling stories.” Unlike Asphodel, the Axeman has no sentimentality or tenderness to spare for the ending. The godly message he offers is not about mercy, but about progress. You need to lose your light before you can find it, he tells Guy Noir. He would know; he was in a band before he was saved by the Lord and the realization that their music was no good.
As the company winds down A Prairie Home Companion’s final act, the Angel and the Axeman find each other in the audience. After a polite conversation, the Angel convinces the Axeman to drive his car off a cliff. But this divine intervention is not enough to save the show. The Axeman may be dead, but the show is dead, too. Keillor wishes the audience goodnight and urges them to tune in next week at the same time, knowing full well that there will be no next week. The Fitzgerald will still fall, the parking garage will rise in its place.
The only thing left, then, is to sing a finale: a sweet, subdued version of the folk spiritual “Red River Valley,” through which it is easy to hear Altman singing along with his company: “Come and sit by my side if you love me, do not hasten to bid me adieu.”
Altman never appears onscreen in A Prairie Home Companion, but behind the camera he is himself a part of the ensemble, catching every bit of chatter and song, delighting in the camaraderie and electricity of his last big show. In the film’s epilogue, several years have passed, and the cast of “A Prairie Home Companion” meet at a diner to plan a farewell tour. Lola has traded suicide poetry for a job selling religious software, Dusty and Lefty are back in town after a stint playing casinos in South Dakota. As the company chats and catches up, the Angel Asphodel enters the diner. The company falls silent, waiting to see who she has come to claim. Guy Noir points around the table, anxious to shift attention from himself, but Asphodel is not interested in anyone on-screen. She has her eye set on the camera, walking towards it with a serene smile until her white trench coat obscures the frame completely.
When Altman accepted his Oscar in 2006, he was determined to make the most of his moment. He offered a full-throated recommitment to his own vitality as an artist and a man. He promised more work, more life, more heartbeats. This was not a “death award,” he assured critics after the ceremony. He had more films planned and a new production partner to try out.
At the insistence of the film’s insurers, Altman’s protege Paul Thomas Anderson was on set throughout the filming of A Prairie Home Companion, ready to step in if Altman became too sick to continue. Altman knew he was dying, but, as he said in his speech, he hadn’t resigned himself to being dead just yet. In A Prairie Home Companion, Altman, like Keillor, is asking the audience to tune in next week, even if he knew that the parking garage is going to go up either way.
It is easy to find eulogies for Altman throughout A Prairie Home Companion. Each tender ballad about loss and each story about the past holds his shape and his shadow, but the memory shines brightest in the words of the film’s final song, which remain a promise from Altman to all of us:
In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on this beautiful shore.
It’s worth noting here that Keillor did eventually depart “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2017, not as the result of an acquisition, but after a lengthy investigation into multiple allegations of sexual misconduct during his tenure. The show has since rebranded as “Live From Here” and is hosted by Chris Thile.