Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) reflects on his job while at the local diner. He is the backstage doorkeeper (and seeker of all things secret and potentially sinister within because he used to be a private eye and assiduously maintains his persona) at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN.
The Fitzgerald Theater, named for native son and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, is home to “The Prairie Home Companion”, a weekly radio variety show. No one is supposed to know – but everyone does – that this is the show’s final performance. The theater has been sold and the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) cometh to take possession.
The show, on stage and back stage, is populated by eccentric and very talented people: G.K. (Garrison Keeler) leads the troupe, hosts the show, chats, and sings. The Johnson Sisters are singers, too; Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) used to be on the county fair circuit and are getting a little long in the tooth for that kind of life. Yolanda and G.K. had a thing going a while back. Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are the Old Trailhands; they may once have been cowboys – who really knows? But they sure sing good. Lola (Lindsay Lohan) is Yolanda’s Goth daughter who writes creepy poetry about suicide. Molly (Maya Rudolph) is the pregnant producer that Guy pays too much attention to, and the ghost (Virginia Madsen), or angel, of the Prairie Home past, has no name. Doesn’t every theater have its ghost – or angel?
Written by Garrison Keiller, the Companion is directed by Robert Altman who can plumb the layers of eccentricity and intelligence in actors in ways guaranteed to entertain (e.g. Gosford Park, Cookie’s Fortune). That Companion is Minnesota-centric is expected and the lyrics of many of the songs have been changed to honor this most dominant star of the show.
The singing is wonderful; Meryl Streep, who studied voice and has sung in other films (Postcards from the Edge and Ironweed), is awesome; Lily Tomlin less so, yet the two make an excellent pairing. Watch for Lindsay Lohan; as annoying as she is in real life, she breaks out and belts out “Frankie and Johnny” so we’ll remember she really does have talent. Harrelson and Reilly as the cowboys are bawdy, earthy and they excel. “Bad Jokes”, written by Keillor, epitomizes what I mean. You’ll laugh and groan at the same time. As for G.K., his homey demeanor, run-on song spoofs, and musical commercials get the live audience going. Yes, the audience is live in the film, but it’s really us. The Guys All-Star Show Band is a hit, led by Grammy winner Richard Dworsky who has been a regular on the show since 1986.
Kevin Kline as the noir-ish voice over doesn’t really fit because he’s a bit of a nutter, but then most of these characters don’t “fit”. They are all so … individual. Yet, they bring their good hearts and odd diversity together to create a show that enlightens the isolated life on the prairie through sound.
I think there’s a link to be made between the characters and the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote about the despair of the young and gave us heroes and heroines who were handsome, beautiful, captivating, and tragic.
The Fitzgerald Theater has been home to the real radio show since 1978. According to the production notes, the show began on July 6, 1974 and currently has an audience of 4.3 million listeners on 550 public radio stations, America One, and the Armed Forces Network in Europe and theFar East. In 2004, the Library of Congress added the show’s debut broadcast to the nation’s registry of historic sound. (I didn’t know the U.S. had a registry of historic sound – did you? The National Recording Registry’s web site is www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb)
There’s also a home-spun theology in the film expressed here and there but especially through the ghost/angel. She’s a messenger about the inevitability of death … in a mediated world. The ever-after show is directed by God, and it must go on.
A Prairie Home Companion, film, or radio show, offers insight on the role of radio in American media history and culture, and by extension in many cultures of the world still without access to television for news and entertainment. Thinking about this film after, I remembered a ninth-grade English teacher who encouraged us to read Rose Wilder Lane’s Let the Hurricane Roar (1943). It was about a young mother who, left with her two children in a sod hut on the prairie during a terrible blizzard while her husband went to get food, struggled with the isolation, and survived. True it was set in the days before radio, but isolation is isolation, and the human voice can be a lifeline, a saving grace. I think this movie may be an awards contender, especially the sound track.
A Prairie Home Companion is quirky, earthy fun. If you listen to the actual radio show that the film mirrors as some quasi alternate universe, you’ll recognize G.K., Guy, Lefty, and Dusty from the regular cast, including performers Sue Scott (she plays Donna) and Tim Russell (who plays Al) and some who are themselves. I would almost call the film enchanting, but it tilts a tad too much for that. It will, however, make you smile, even if you’re not from Minnesota.