The Last Radio Show

Robert Altman’s Final Film Captures the Endearing, Creative Chaos of “A Praire Home Companion”

On The Town | Michael Freund | February 2007

Creator of the show Garrison Keillor with Lilly Tomlin, Meryl Streep and Lindsey Lohan crooning at the mic at the Fitzgerald Theater (Photo: Picturehouse)

Chaos is reigning on stage. Behind closed curtains singers and musicians walk about aimlessly, ignore orders, are nervous. What makes matters worse is the fact that the theater is about to close. This is going to be the last performance. Doesn’t he know that, someone asks the tall man, the center of attention. So what, he says, "every show is the last show."

Robert Altman’s latest and last movie, A Prairie Home Companion, is, in an eerily prescient way, about the end. It deals with finality, with the ways one can confront the unavoidable, with how religion serves as solace and as a clever business proposition.

It is also a film about radio, as a medium and as a passion. The audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota is only shown once, and you never see the listeners at home. But the whole evening, the whole story is a live program of the fantasy radio station WLT. And Garrison Keillor, the tall man, is the calm and unperturbed moderator, singer and storyteller on stage (and not only in this movie- it is also his job in real life). His real program gave the film its title, he co-wrote the script, and he plays himself: "GK".

Keillor is a living radio legend – just ask anybody who listens to public radio in the United States. His Prairie Home Companion, two hours live every Saturday afternoon, is among the most successful broadcasts of NPR, syndicated by hundreds of stations, on the air for more than thirty years. And Keillor’s home station of Minnesota Public Radio is not about to be butchered by a Texan fundamentalist, as is WLT in the movie.

Keillor loves old-time radio. He mourns the passing of most of this fresh and lively scene. He wrote about it, sang about it, and now he inspired a movie about it. He only picks up what actually happens to a lot of radio stations in America. Already in the early Nineties, in his book WLT – A Radio Romance, he lamented the fate of a small rural station (With Lettuce and Tomatoes) that cannot compete with the automated playlist-jukeboxes of modern broadcasting networks.

Born 1942 in Anoka, Minnesota, Keillor still remembers the times when the whole family would gather around the big box in the corner with the green "magic eye." His live program recreates some of this atmosphere, a mix of country and folk music, some jazz, some jokes on stage. He always tells stories about a fictitious town called Lake Wobegon and its Lutheran Norwegian and German farmers (like his own ancestors). Thus he created his own format when more and more station switched to a few established formulas such as all-country, all-religion, all-sports. Talk radio in particular contributed to the increasingly hectic and one-sided image of the medium.

What Keillor offers instead sounds, at first glance, like old-fashioned family fare. But his irony and his cool distance to the made-up and the real super-patriots, his dry sense of humor and self-deprecation have made him a hero in urbane circles as well as among the country folks in the Midwest. Add to this the fact that he also publishes in The New Yorker and The Nation, that he wrote several bestsellers, and that on top of all this he runs an independent little bookshop in St. Paul, and you can see how he and Robert Altman hit it off so well.

Altman, after all, directed Nashville in 1975, an intelligent and highly entertaining movie about American show business. Nashville featured a troubled folksinger, played by Lily Tomlin. In A Prairie Home Companion, Tomlin returns to the genre, this time with Meryl Streep as her sister. The duo fathoms the depths of an endangered career and make a great sideact to Keillor.

Together, Altman and Keillor can pull off the trick of loading two hours with sentimentality without syrup – or if there is syrup, it is laughable, and if there are bad jokes, they are so bad that they are good again. Made-up sponsors get their share of ridicule. And death comes in the form of a cunning stunning blonde in a white trenchcoat.

A movie may not be able to grasp the intimacy of the "hot medium" radio one to one. But the two American icons Altman & Keillor found a way of translating it adequately. They deliver a great case study of American popular culture, embedded in a fatally serious story. As another cultural critic, Karl Kraus, would have put it: It may be hopeless. But it is not serious.

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