A Prairie Home Companion
A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)
Motion Picture Association rating: PG-13 for risque humor.
USCCB rating: A-III -- adults
FILM SYNOPSIS: A look at what goes on backstage during
the last broadcast of America's most celebrated radio show, where
singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty, a country music siren (Streep),
and a host of others hold court.
I remember the 1989
comedy Postcards from the Edge starring Meryl
Streep. I was greatly surprised with the film’s ending in
which Meryl belts out a country song. Who would have thought,
in addition to everything else, she could sing so well? After
17 years, she’s still got a great singer. I loved seeing
Meryl singing with Garrison Keillor and Lily Tomlin in A Prairie
Home Companion. If that’s all there was to the movie, it
would be well worth seeing.
Fortunately, there’s much more to like about
the film. Streep and Tomlin, as the singing Johnson Sisters, along
with Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, “The
Old Trailhands,” seem to be having the time of their lives.
They join Keillor and many of the regulars of the long running
NPRShow (the show in the film is supposed to be a fictional show
based on Prairie Home Companion) singing, chatting, and telling
bad jokes. I dare you not to break out in a wide grin as Harrelson
and Reilly sing a bawdy song about awful jokes.
On one level, the film is a behind-the-scenes look
at the fictional show on the occasion of its final broadcast from
the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. The film unfolds
in real time, as the radio show moves from act to act. If you’re
familiar with the show, you will certainly catch the sponsorship
of Powder Milk Biscuits and the Ketchup Advisory Board. Unfortunately,
we don’t get to hear Keillor doing one of his wonderful
monologues about life in Lake Woebegone.
long as the movie stays with the onstage performers, it is very
entertaining. However, the rest of the film is uneven. Kevin Kline
plays Guy Noir, Private Eye, one of Keillor’s regulars.
Virginia Madsen wanders backstage in a white trench coat as an
Angel of Death. An elderly singer dies backstage after performing.
Tommy Lee Jones appears as an “axe man” from Texas,
representing the corporation which is ending the show’s
run. Unfortunately, Kline, Masden, and Jones, accomplished actors
all, never appear comfortable in their sketchy roles. I think
they would have been happier singing and joking with Streep, Keillor,
Harrelson, and the others.
The large cast is directed by the legendary Robert
Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park). For almost 40 years,
Altman has made his reputation guiding large casts through multiple
story lines with his trademark overlapping dialogue. In Prairie
Home, Altman is more successful here with the performers on stage
than off. Despite its unevenness, Prairie Home is beautifully
photographed, and always enjoyable to watch, even in its weaker
Altman and Keillor (who wrote the screenplay) have
made a film celebrating the final performance of an old fashioned
live radio program in an American Idol age. Prairie Home has for
decades celebrated the gentle humor of its idiosyncratic Minnesota
roots. In its focus on the particular context of small town Minnesotans,
Keillor is a master of finding the universal themes of the human
condition. Prairie Home celebrates bluegrass and country and gospel
music over the mainstream generic music on most radio stations
today. I find that Prairie Home is one of the few places in which
there is any talk about religion and the spiritual and the spiritual
life, without a cynical or fundamentalist attitude. It’s
also one of the places where politics and values enter into the
conversation, both seriously and humorously.
What is the meaning of the Angel of Death who hovers
over the movie? I think that, for Keillor and Altman, the Angel
announces the death of a show that celebrates the ordinary, idiosyncratic,
Midwestern people in a world that celebrates the media-made celebrity.
As the radio program comes to its final moment,
the cast comes together for a poignant rendition of Red River
Valley. When they discover that a few moments remain, Lindsay
Lohan, as Meryl Streep’s daughter, makes her radio debut
singing Frankie and Johnny (even though she forgets the words).
Keillor refuses shuns farewell speeches and long goodbyes. For
him, a spirited rendition of a folk song is a fitting farewell.
Katie Couric and Star Jones Reynolds, and other celebrities should
Tom Condon, OP