A Prairie Home Companion
by Tony Medley
”(W)ho likes popular culture?” asked cultural historian Arthur Asa
Berger, in 1970. His answer: “Many works of culture for the common
people do not please large numbers of them. The answer is nobody. Nobody
likes popular culture per se, but a large number of people like
certain specific works of popular culture and dislike other works. I
like ‘Li’l Abner’ and dislike ‘Bonaventure,’ for example. I think
‘Rashomon’ (1950) is a brilliant film and ‘Il Gattopardo’ (1963) a poor
that’s the problem with analyzing “A Prairie Home Companion,” which
epitomizes “popular culture” more than a quarter century after Berger
wrote. A couple of decades ago I was dating a Finnish girl. The Finnish
people I met through her were not known for their sense of humor, to say
the least. One day she told me about this wonderful radio program that
she never missed because it was so funny. I tuned it in. It was “A
Prairie Home Companion,” starring and written by Keillor. Although I
tried, I did not then, and do not now, find Garrison Keillor funny.
However, proving Asa Berger’s thesis, Keillor has a following and a
reputation for humor, I guess, and he wrote a script patterned after his
radio show which has been broadcast on Public Radio since 1974.
Keillor’s storyline is that a long-lived radio show, called, fittingly,
“A Prairie Home Companion,” is being cancelled by new, absentee owners
of the radio station located in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the film is the
story of the last show put on in an auditorium before a live audience.
Keillor got Robert Altman to direct which, as far as I’m concerned, is
appropriate because Robert Altman is not my cup of tea, either. I liked
his first film, “M*A*S*H” (1970), and “The Player” (1992) was OK. But
others like “Popeye” (1980), “Gosford Park” (2001), “Nashville” (1975)?
Ugh. Critics at the time loved them; I didn’t. That’s popular culture
Altman is known for turning on his cameras and allowing the actors to
improvise while the cameras continue to roll. Despite the script, all
the actors were encouraged to improvise and develop their respective
characters with impunity. Altman filmed scenes in their entirety with
multiple camera crews capturing interactions both on- and backstage.
Everyone was miked and he just filmed what happened and what they said.
Actors enjoy this, but the result is stream of consciousness dialogue
that can blur a premise, if a film has a premise.
Keillor is the announcer/Master of Ceremonies for the show in the movie.
The cast includes Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep) and her sister Rhonda
(Lily Tomlin) who do most of the talking, and it was mostly their
talking that caused me to lose interest. They are backstage waiting to
go on and they talk and they talk and they talk. I fought sleep while
they talked. To me, they were not funny or even slightly interesting.
Yolanda’s daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), who appears unhappy for no
reason that is ever explained, is also backstage writing a poem about
suicide. Imported from the real “Prairie Home Companion” are the two
cowboys, Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), who sing
and tell jokes on this show.
Strolling around ethereally dressed in white is Dangerous Woman
(Virginia Madsen), who is an Angel of Death. Another actor in the show
is L.Q. Jones (Chuck Akers), along with assistant stage manager Molly
(Maya Rudolph). Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), one of Keillor’s most popular
characters from the radio show, is a private eye who acts as the show’s
security man, and Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) is the man from Texas who is
there to shut down the show.
film cuts back and forth from Keillor as Master of Ceremonies of the
final show, introducing acts and telling stories intended to be
humorous, to the other characters backstage to the actual acts onstage.
I did a lot of squirming and watch-checking when there was no music
film is beautifully shot; the sound is wonderful; the music (some
written by Keillor) is exceptional, enhanced by the musicians from the
actual radio show, called The Guys All-Star Shoe Band. If you like
Keillor and/or Altman, you should like this. I was less than swept away
by the story and the obscure humor, but I sure liked the music. Everyone
sings and the songs are terrific. Even Lindsay Lohan sings, a version of
“Frankie and Johnny,” and she has a surprisingly good voice. I didn’t
laugh once, but I tapped my feet a lot to the rhythm of the captivating
May 26, 2006