When I first heard the title A Prairie Home Companion it sounded like a medicinal book from the early 20th century; one that you might now find at flea markets and second hand bookstores.
It made me think of an ancient piece of literature that your great grandmother used to turn to for advice – written by the experts of the day – and which would eventually be passed on to her daughter who would, in turn, give it to your mother. The closest example I can think of is an Afrikaans cookbook called Kook en Geniet that my mother received in the same fashion and that is still used to this day.
As far as titles go, A Prairie Home Companion sounds archaic but there’s also something comforting about it, like homemade chicken soup. It, for me anyway, conjured up images of a forgotten or lost world that few can remember but one that was pleasant and enjoyed by all in its heyday. That’s a lot imagined from a simple title but upon watching Robert Altman’s new film I don’t believe I was too far off.
As it turns out A Prairie Home Companion has absolutely nothing to do with literature of any kind but it does deal with the archaic in another form; the Radio variety show of the early 20th century. A style of performance dominated by sound and a listener’s imagination.
A Prairie Home Companion tells the story of a radio show, of the same name, that has come to its final night of broadcast after having been on the air for decades. The owners of the theatre where the broadcasts take place have decided to sell and the show is to be cancelled. As the final night of performances begin, the people behind the scenes, the performers and technical staff, lament about what the show has meant to them for so many years and optimistically hope for a miracle to save it. When a mysterious lady in a white trench coat arrives backstage it appears as if their prayers may have been answered.
A Prairie Home Companion takes its inspiration from the real life American radio show, also of the same name, that has been running since 1974, and is hosted by the film’s on air announcer/singer and scriptwriter Garrison Keillor. Much of what you see on the screen is taken directly from the real life A Prairie Home Companion.
The film could best be described as one part musical and one part character drama, with a hint of fantasy thrown in. As a musical it works superbly with all involved singing their hearts out. Meryl Streep clearly enjoys this aspect of performance and her musical numbers are infectiously watchable as are the on-air stage cowboys of Dusty and Lefty – played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. Their song about bad jokes towards the end of the film is a highlight. Keillor’s performance is magnificent and one can see that he is a veteran of this lost form of radio because he is completely comfortable in front of the microphone as he shifts effortlessly from smooth talking narrator into seasoned singer.
As a character drama, however, things start to fall a part. A Prairie Home Companion is slow and it appears that it doesn’t really know where it’s going or what it’s meant to be doing. It meanders around much like Altman’s panning, swooping and always moving camera, and it becomes mildly irritating to watch as a result. I wanted more to happen and little did. The lady in the white trench coat (Virginia Madsen) injects some fantasy into the events backstage as she moves amongst its inhabitants but Keillor’s script lacks a certain amount of drive. I can’t help but feel that so much more should have been done with the talented cast that Altman had at his disposal.
A Prairie Home Companion is a film filled with terrific singing and dramatic performances and one that exposed me to the world of radio in a way that I had never seen before. It made me realize, even more, how uninspired and lazy contemporary radio really is and what a craft radio back in the day must have been. That said, it will definitely irritate some people – particularly those of the iPod digital age – with its slow pace and extremely thin plot, perhaps appealing more to those who can remember the old days of Springbok Radio. It is a well-crafted, enjoyable film that simply needed a bit more get up and go.