A Prairie Home Companion
Garrison Keillor is a genius. Anyone who’s listened to A Prairie Home Companion over the last quarter of a century knows that. And I’m happy to report that his first venture onto the silver screen is not a disappointment. In fact, I loved it.
The great Robert Altman is at the helm. In a way, so many of Altman’s films are cinematic equivalents of variety shows. So it’s a perfect fit: screenplay by Keillor with Altman in the director’s chair.
And what a great cast. The performance by Meryl Streep alone is worth a trip to the beautifully restored Delmar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. The movie is playing on two screens, but if you can, catch this one in the main auditorium. It will be just a little bit like sitting in the old Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, which is the setting for the film.
The movie version of A Prairie Home Companion allows Keillor latitude he can’t express on public radio, especially given the quasi fundamentalist mentality of congress, the FCC, and a federal justice department that actually drapes statues to protect the public from bare breasted sculpture. Thus we are privileged to enjoy some very clever and ever so moderately off color jokes in the screen version of A Prairie Home Companion.
The film is a blend of the familiar and the slightly surreal. Like the radio show, there’s plenty of music and monologue, brought to us by the usual sponsors, including duct tape. But there is a larger story at work, and though I am loath to give away anything essential, I will presume that most of us have seen the previews, and know that the radio show we see unfolding on the screen is presumably the end of the line. The radio station that has hosted the show for over 30 years, WBLT, has been gobbled up by a Texas based conglomerate. We are witnessing the finale, the last show.
To immediately differentiate the screen version from the radio show most of us know and love, Keillor opens the film with a voice over. It’s not Keillor’s voice, but Kevin Kline’s, and Kline is cast as Guy Noir, Private Detective, a stock character on the radio show, heretofore played by Keillor himself. The opening is perhaps the most subtle joke in the entire movie. The noir tradition in film often features a voice over, and sometimes, it’s the voice of someone speaking from the grave.
The film closes with a dark question. For a possible answer to it, recall the opening scene and the tradition of film noir.
I’ve mentioned that the screen version features a bit of the surreal. Virginia Madden provides it in the character of The Dangerous Woman. If I tell you that the narrative is spiced with several deaths and philosophical considerations of death, I ruin nothing. This,
I think, is merely an extension of Garrison Keillor’s way of looking at life. We all die. What matters is that while we’re alive, we grace the voyage with good stories and plenty of music. A Prairie Home Companion does just that. It’s funny, it’s sad, and it moves
quickly, just like life.
Catch it while you can.
For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.