I recently spent $25 to see a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. We were hundreds of feet away from the stage; if we wanted to see what was happening we had to look at the giant monitors which showed closeups of Garrison Keillor and his guests. If we could have simply bought the video they fed to those monitors, we might have been better off.
What made the live broadcast so disappointing is that the radio show is so intimate. When Keillor drops his voice down low and whispers into the microphone about his home town, it sounds like he’s right there in your living room. That essential quality of intimacy is lost in an arena with 5,700 other fans.
Thanks, then to Robert Altman, Keillor, and the good people at New Line for offering a happy medium: the Prairie Home Companion movie.
Art Imitates Life
PG-13 for Risque humor
A Prairie Home Companion is not a documentary. It’s a work of fiction about a radio show called A Prairie Home Companion hosted by a man named “GK,” who is played by Garrison Keillor, who also wrote the screenplay.
You might think there would be a temptation to simply film the radio production and call it a movie. But to really justify a film production, one needs to overlay some sort of a plot, an overarching theme, and if possible, some movie actors who know what they’re doing.
And so, we have a conflict, a villain, and a plot. The fictional radio show in our movie may be ending after tonight’s performance. A Texan (Tommy Lee Jones) has bought the Minnesota radio station, and he has no use for an old-time radio show. GK knows that tonight may be the end, and he’s arranged for all the old friends to come back for one last performance, but he hasn’t told any of them about the show’s fate.
Altman peppers the back-stage story with numbers and skits from on-stage. There is a big ensemble of talented actors, each with a substantial role. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep play singing sisters from back in the day. One has brought her suicide-poetry-writing daughter (Lindsay Lohan) with her. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly bring to life Dusty and Lefty, two old cowboy singers. And Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir, private eye, personified. Then of course there’s Keillor and his regulars from the real show: Tom Keith, Rich Dworsky, Jearlyn Steele, and many others.
Where Is Thy Sting?
The movie plays a lot like the real show, except movie-fied. Altman shows us enough of the on-stage show to prove that his cast can sing, but he also bring us back behind the scenes to advance the movie’s plot.
Though the plot is thin, there is a nice overarching theme that makes A Prairie Home Companion feel like more than just a radio show picked at random. The show is dying, and death is everywhere. One of the old-timers dies after his number, having apparently squeezed the last drop out of life. GK takes the show’s death in stride, which infuriates the sisters who want to mark the occasion somehow. (GK explains that you can’t just have a minute of silence; this is radio.) The Texan with the purse-string garrotte is referred to only as “The Axeman.” Even the movie’s fight for survival is morbid: all it can think to do is try to kill its own death with the help of the ghost of a dead woman who was, in turn, killed by the show.
And yet, death is a fact of life, it’s a chance for rebirth, and regardless, the show must go on.
A Whole New Medium
It’s impossible for me to evaluate this movie for anyone who doesn’t know the radio show. I’m too familiar with the personalities and characters to be able to separate out the pure film elements from the Prairie Home Companion elements. Nevertheless, there are some shortcomings that a moviegoer might fairly complain about if he weren’t predisposed to like the movie.
For instance, the brought-to-life radio characters (Noir, Dusty, and Lefty) live in a different universe from the rest of the characters. They are unabashedly included as comic relief. They are two-dimensional, and yet they interact with the three-dimensional dramatic characters. As a fan of the radio show, I was happy to see these guys, but a student of film could be right to critique them.
And as much as I like Keillor as a writer and on-air personality, he’s not much of a movie actor. Altman helps him quite a bit. Keillor’s approach is to freeze in front of the camera and hope for the best. I remember hearing a director say once that to fix a bad performance, just give the actor a cup of coffee. Altman probably gave Keillor that kind of simple direction. In one scene, Keillor holds, but never eats, an apple. In another, he’s in the midst of putting on his pants. In yet another, he’s holding a mug of coffee. So even though Keillor never really acts, he’s always in the act of doing something. That counts, right? (By the way, when he’s in his element, playing himself doing the show, he’s fine.)
Strong, Handsome, and Above Average
I’ve sat in many a living room, enjoying A Prairie Home Companion. Seeing the movie is just as enjoyable, and it’s cheaper and more intimate than going to a live show at a big venue. The jump to film isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough.
For those who don’t know or don’t like the show, I can’t say whether Altman’s direction and his cast’s performances are enough to stand on their own. But it’s hard to even imagine such an audience. This one is clearly for the fans, and that’s good enough for me.