Directed by Robert Altman. U.S. 2006.

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If the camera were still, there would have to be drama, and there is virtually none. But the camera never is still, and higher drama would not fit. The jokes cannot be very funny, and they're not, and the Detective cannot be on much of a case, and he isn't. This is Low-beat sending-up Low-beat.

There is a radio mast in silhouette on a hill with winter trees, the Sun going down behind it. Someone is surfing the channels as Film Titles recede in the sky. Then a rainy street reflecting the neon colours of a Diner, and slow jazz piano; we move in. A voice-over from Private-eye Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) who is in there before work, tells us the story he used to have. He walks out as a saxophone begins. Now he “handles security on a live radio variety show in an old theatre” and this is its last night: they're pulling down the theatre, for a parking-lot. Outside, and in the foyer a crowd is arriving. Back-stage with feet up, cowboy hat, and acoustic guitar, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) run through a song. On a crowded stage the floor-man searches for his pencil, a roadie arranges guitars, and they're laying out music-stands and chairs. Back-stage The Johnson Girls (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) with daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) arrive late and collect re-written scripts. The Stage Manager (Maya Rudolph) calls Garrison Keillor (playing himself), who is in the dressing-room telling a story of his early Radio days, while putting on his trousers. He is due on but so laid-back that he hardly moves, and continues his story. Watching these early scenes, inter-cut, is like looking at the pages of a book and having them turned over before you've finished reading. The pregnant S.M. fakes labour to draw the M.C.'s attention. He meanders on to the stage, continuing his asides, and is at the microphone as the curtain goes up revealing the auditorium. Garrison is into it as smoothly as if his every move has been finely timed. The Show begins. And that's what this film is: a show.

The adverts are sung with a spirit of joy, and they're as good as the songs, nearly. And every song is brought to us by a product. But there is an under-currant that moves in back-stage as slyly as the camera: a Mysterious Lady (Virginia Madsen) and a man from the Corporation (Tommy Lee Jones). We can ignore them if we want. The show is still on.

Whether or not we like Country music, it is performed well, and so are the back-stage reminiscences. The different acting styles of, for example Meryl Streep, and Kevin Kline hold together creating a piece worthy of its Director. And if that radio Show hasn't already got cult status it might get it.  

Peter Tonks 
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