Friday, June 9, 2006
To bringA Prairie Home Companion
to the screen director Robert Altman and writer Garrison Keillor have created a kind of parallel universe for the popular radio show that Keillor has been doing for some three decades. The film takes us backstage of a radio variety show that looks and sounds very much like the real one that Keillor does out of St. Paul, Minnesota. But radio show of the film, unlike the realA Prairie Home Companion
that?s a nationally syndicated hit with more than four million listeners, is a weekend event on a mom-and-pop station in St. Paul. The show has somehow managed to survive in the age of television and other new fangled technology.
The Chandleresque Guy Noir (Kevin Kline bringing to life the recurring fictional character from Keillor's real radio program) serves as our initial guide to this Midwestern world. Guy is a security guard who talks and dresses like Sam Spade. He takes us backstage at the Fitzgerald Theater where folks are getting ready to put on a show. GK (Garrison Keillor), the show's host, is caught backstage without his pants and in mid-story as a pregnant and nervous stage manager (Maya Rudolph) tries to convince the laidback Minnesotan that he needs to hurry things up to make the curtain call. There's also the Johnson Sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), a one-time singing quartet that's been reduced over time to a duet. Lola (Lindsay Lohan), Yolanda's daughter, represents the next generation of the Johnsons and she may make her singing debut at this night's show. Other regulars include Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), singing cowpokes that break up their songs with some risque humor. And milling around backstage is a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen) who may just be an angel of death. The evening of entertainment is also colored by the fact that the Fitzgerald Theater has been sold to a Texas conglomerate that plans to shut down the theater and put an end to the radio show.
Altman's film of A Prairie Home Companion has a strangely elegiac quality as a strong sense of things coming to an end permeates the film. Maybe Keillor choose this particular narrative theme to insure that this will be the only film version of his popular show, or maybe after doing it for thirty years, he feels like putting this behind him so he can move on to something else. Or maybe Altman, who recently revealed that he had a heart transplant eleven years ago and who was forced by the insurance company to have Paul Thomas Anderson as a stand by director in case his health failed, felt the angel of death hovering over him. But whatever the motivation, the film has a bittersweet quality that tinges everything with just a hint of sadness.
But that's not to say that this final performance of A Prairie Home Companion isn't lively. The film is filled with music and energetic performances. A chief pleasure and treat is to hear Meryl Streep belt a few out. She's also joined onstage by Jearlyn Steele, Robin and Linda Williams, Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly and Lily Tomlin.
Keillor, who hails from Minnesota, and Altman, who was born in Kansas City, MO share a certain relaxed Midwest quality that lets the film unfold at a casual pace. Neither one seems in much of a hurry to get anywhere so you might as well just sit back and enjoy the show. Although almost all the action takes place within the theater, Altman still weaves multiple plot strands together as his camera roams around backstage catching bits and pieces of various crises and dramas.
The film is likely to please radio show fans that enjoy the music of A Prairie Home Companion . In fact, the film feels more like a concert documentary than a narrative film. I can't call myself an avid listener of the show but I've listened often enough to know that what I've always appreciated most was the storytelling the way Keillor could pull you into his Midwestern dramas and humorous tales. That sense of storytelling, of hooking you with a good narrative is what's missing from the film. Altman and Keillor do display some sly humor early on as Keillor's GK tries to tell a story and is repeatedly interrupted and has to keep picking up the story at odd intervals. But Keillor never gets to weave one of his tales in its entirety for the camera. Maybe the filmmakers thought that a man standing at a microphone telling a story didn't make for good cinema, yet it's Keillor's ability to hold us rapt with just a verbal tale that has made the real radio show so satisfying. So it's a shame that the film isn't able to capture that quality as well. Sure there are mini dramas going on backstage, but none are that involving or deliver a satisfying payoff. And the characters that Keillor does choose to bring to the film Guy Noir, and Dusty and Lefty are some of the less interesting ones featured on his radio show.
A Prairie Home Companion (rated PG-13 for risqu? humor) offers lite versions of both Altman and Keillor. Rather than spurring each other on to take artistic risks, these two talented Midwesterners seem to have lulled each other into a comfortable middle ground. They still deliver an entertaining work but it's not the best that either is capable of.
Companion viewing: Nashville, Fargo, Kansas City -----