A Prairie Home Companion is the first DVD that comes in the big blue box or the brown bag with the dark stains that indicate freshness, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart notes.
"It's the end of an era when this show goes, guys. There won't be anything left on the radio but people yelling at ya and computers playing music."
It's been a quiet week at DVD Verdict, my home site. Thus, it's fitting that I took in A Prairie Home Companion, the movie inspired by a certain weekly radio show. This adaptation of Lum and Abner …
No, let's correct that. It's based on—who'd have guessed?—A Prairie Home Companion.
Radio's A Prairie Home Companion first took the stage at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., on July 6, 1974. Since then, the show Garrison Keillor created in the image of the Grand Ole Opry has gone national. It has blossomed into a wide-ranging musical showcase as well as a comedy program that mixes Keillor's storytelling with sketches that blend Saturday Night Live topicality with a Stan Freberg-style palette of sound. A healthy dose of Midwestern self-deprecation helps create a Saturday-night favorite for more than 4 million people.
The centerpiece of the show is Keillor's weekly "News from Lake Wobegon," a short story about the people of his fictional Minnesota small town; seemingly gentle tales that at times have a dark edge that might surprise you. Keillor and his company of the air surround that monologue with fake ads touting the benefits of Powdermilk biscuits, ketchup, and duct tape, along with regular sketches such as "Guy Noir, Private Eye."
As Keillor himself puts it on this DVD: "I do a radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, which is a sort of a show—a live variety comedy show—which had died a long time before I even started it. Died in my childhood, as a matter of fact. Having died already, one can start this show up and it seems like an innovation."
It's an innovation that didn't go unnoticed. Among those 4 million or so fans are celebrities like Meryl Streep, Virginia Madsen, and Tommy Lee Jones. They also include one special listener, Kathryn Altman. Why is she so special? She brought her husband, Director Robert Altman, to the radio set. As Keillor puts it, "Mr. Altman, by virtue of marriage, was a hostage listener." Maybe so, but Altman liked what he heard enough to put images to it, working with Keillor to create A Prairie Home Companion, a fictional movie that depicts the last broadcast of the radio show.
Keillor doesn't have to worry anytime soon, since his fans showed their support with $20,342,852 in domestic ticket sales.
Facts of the Case
As the opening credits roll, the dial is twisting on a car radio as it goes through various choices as in the opening to WKRP in Cincinnati, starting with rockabilly music, then farm market reports, recipes, religion. At first it sounds like old-time radio with a Midwestern accent, but it then gets a little nastier, with modern banes like a talk show about couples counseling and—gasp—traffic reports.
"A quiet night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, but one man is still looking for the answers to life's persistent questions." That man, doing his own narration, is Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda). On a rainy Saturday night, the down-on-his-luck private eye sits in a diner before heading to work as security chief for A Prairie Home Companion.
"It was a live radio variety show, the kind that died 50 years ago, but somebody forgot to tell them—until tonight," Noir says, continuing with his narration. A corporation has just bought WLT, "your friendly neighbor station," and plans to shut down the show so it can tear down the theater to make room for a parking garage. Keillor fans will recall that WLT (standing for With Lettuce and Tomato, since the station was created to promote the Soderberg's Court restaurant) was the setting for WLT: A Radio Romance, his novel that paid tribute to old-time radio.
At the Fitzgerald Theater, it's time for Garrison Keillor to sing "Tishomingo Blues" once again to open his show. It's also time to meet its cast: the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin, Nine to Five), a Gospel-style act that was "thrown out like a piece of garbage" when a now-retired sister forgot to pay for a doughnut; Lefty (John C. Reilly, Chicago) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson, Cheers), singing cowboys who will end their Prairie run with some off-color "Bad Jokes," and Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones, The Wild Bunch), a veteran country star for whom this will be his last night on stage.
We also meet Lola (Lindsay Lohan, Just My Luck), Yolanda's daughter, who's obsessed with suicide; "The Axeman" (Tommy Lee Jones. Men in Black), who's on hand to see the demise of the show he cancelled; a pregnant stage manager (Maya Rudolph, Saturday Night Live); and a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen, Sideways) who wanders around backstage. Noir believes she'll be the "angel" who saves the show.
The show must go on, one last time …
If you're familiar with Garrison Keillor's novels, you have a rough idea of what to expect here. While the radio show's monologues have their sharp edges, the mood of the movie is a little more dark and surreal than the radio show. As in Keillor's novels, small scenes build to create a reality that resonates, although the movie relies on surreal touches that go beyond his usual interpretations of the everyday.
The movie's images of A Prairie Home Companion seem like the radio show musically, but play out as a more old-fashioned show than Keillor's weekly broadcast (even though Keillor does his famous parody commercials). This appears to be Keillor's way of creating a metaphor for all the barn dances and jamborees that have gone silent as people tuned out and turned on their TVs, as does a coda set firmly in the present that lets us know that the final night portrayed in the movie took place in the unspecified past. The coda also has a unique quality in that it suggests a resolution without actually showing it; this has the benefit of giving a literal ending to those people who insist there has to be one and a symbolic ending to those who'd like to chew it over a bit. Pretty neat trick. Thus, A Prairie Home Companion sets a mood of longing for radio days gone by, comparing the deaths of all those local radio jamborees to the death of a friend.
Although Director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H) finds himself in the odd position of realizing Garrison Keillor's vision instead of his own, he sets the stage excellently. He uses the natural tones of the Fitzgerald Theater, the real-life home of A Prairie Home Companion, to create a faded world of yellows and browns that evokes the fading of an era. These colors—along with a natural lighting that immerses characters and viewers alike in the harsh spotlight of the stage, the dimmer light backstage, or the darkness of the audience—get good treatment in this DVD.
Garrison Keillor plays himself (or GK, as he's listed in the credits) as a performer who doesn't manifest nervousness directly but always is "on," spinning stories that his colleagues have heard a jillion times backstage as he waits for his cue. He jokes about being ready to leave the spotlight, but his character doesn't seem to mean it. His movie persona is written—by Keillor—to the strengths of his radio persona, evidently to give one shy person the strength to get up and do what needed to be done on the big screen.
Most notable among the famous faces is Kevin Kline as Guy Noir. Kline makes the signature radio character a caricature of noirish detectives, who treats natural deaths (and a pregnancy) as mysteries to be solved. He relishes Keillor's screwball dime-novel dialogue and throws in some subtle physical comedy to go with it.
The other stars who came to St. Paul for A Prairie Home Companion fare well, but if you've listened to the series, it will be harder to forget that they're stars, not part of Keillor's regular company. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly blend into their roles as two rowdy cowboys. Meryl Streep gets some good moments out of a subplot about a one-time affair with Keillor, using gestures to build the backstory. Those of you who want to loathe Lindsay Lohan may be disappointed to find yourselves chuckling with her comic musical number near the end. Though his role is small, Tommy Lee Jones embodies cold authority as the Axeman who cometh for the final broadcast, with such a sureness of purpose that he doesn't even have to identify himself when entering the theater.
Though he doesn't speak, Prairie sound effects man Tom Keith has some good moments. I particularly liked a scene in which he improvises effects to an impromptu story told by Keillor and Streep after Maya Rudolph's stage manager drops a script, only to be stumped by a scimitar in the dialogue.
Fans of A Prairie Home Companion will love the eclectic musical score here—whether it's a coffee jingle, a blues number, or a honky-tonk standard on stage. The soundtrack CD might do better than the DVD, but you'll like hearing the show's trademark tunes in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The music is highlighted in the extras, with more than 20 minutes of uncut musical numbers by the Prairie regulars in the "Onstage at the Fitzgerald" feature and even more musical highlights featured in the soundtrack preview. If you consider those (and the parody commercials) the real hot item, this DVD will satisfy you.
"Come Play with Us: A Feature Companion" is an extensive—about 50 minutes' worth—look at the movie. The typical congratulatory exchanges are balanced out by Robert Altman's understated comments as they describe how the radio show became a movie; for example, he notes that, although he listened to radio dramas and comedies in the 1930s, A Prairie Home Companion has more of a theatrical flair than the shows he once heard. Most of it's pretty good stuff, but you'll probably shake your head about why they used slow motion to prolong a fart during an interview with Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly.
Altman's understatement also makes the commentary featuring Altman and Kevin Kline interesting. As Altman says about commentary tracks, "You make all these excuses up after the fact." Along with the excuses, Altman explains why he lets actors ad-lib; it's in response to his television days when the script was all-important.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it sets a mood and has some good scenes, the general faded feel that goes with the night-in-the-life story of a radio jamboree about to ride into the sunset might not be your cup of moonshine. The bittersweet style shouldn't surprise Keillor fans, but the backstage affairs, slyly risque jokes, and cynicism will be a shock to anyone looking for a movie with as much down-home comfort as those Powdermilk biscuits.
The artistic flourishes of the movie also remind us in a backhanded way that A Prairie Home Companion isn't, strictly speaking, a old-fashioned jamboree. Keillor's storytelling illustrates the conflicts that modern life brings to once-isolated Lake Wobegon, while sketches touch on topical themes, and the performers cover a wider range of musical genres.
I didn't catch A Prairie Home Companion at the theater, but since it has good extended musical scenes and I found new things to like in a second viewing, I'd say this one plays better on DVD than it would have on the big screen.
Mostly pretty good…er, not guilty. That's the news from DVD Verdict, where all the movies are strong, the bonus features are good-looking, and the commentaries are above average.
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