A Prairie Home Companion is a real National Public Radio show in the US. Each week, it brings an eclectic mix of music and humour to a loyal audience. The nearest thing locally would be the slightly eccentric music hall show, Friday Night is Music Night, on BBC Radio 2.
Garrison Keillor is well known as the author of the Lake Wobegon series of books. Unconventional tales about a screwball community. Rambling, comforting stories, with occasional laugh-until-you-hurt moments. He also hosts the Prairie Home Companion’s weekly radio show, broadcast live from the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota for over thirty news.
With just twelve other people spread across the 249 seats, I settled back into my usual seat in the near empty screen at London’s Curzon Soho to enjoy A Prairie Home Companion, the film based on that real radio show, and includes many of the regular performers and musicians.
The film’s fictional element comes from the twist that the radio station has been taken over and their weekly show is being axed. The action follows those involved in producing and performing this last show, before the demolition team arrives in the morning to dismantle the set and turn the theatre into a parking lot.
As well as writing the film, Garrison Keillor plays himself. His manner and demeanour are so unlike that of a Holywood star. He doesn’t play to the radio theatre’s audience (who we never see up close). Instead he throws himself into the show’s content and music, donning a “face for radio”. His bumbling and covering up for mistakes may even be more authentic than acted.
Some big names have been drafted in to boost the commerciality of director Robert Altman’s film, his last as it turned out - Altman was 79 when he made it. And they can all sing. Meryl Streep plays a histrionic sister, one of the Johnston singers, with Lindsay Lohan as her daughter. So that’s who Lohan is! Given Lohan’s off-screen party animal persona, she plays a surprisingly normal girl, except for the dark suicidal poetry she writes, reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar!
There’s a little too much narrative at the film’s beginning from the show’s security man Guy Noir, played by Kevin Kline, to get the audience up to speed with the story. It spoils the opening, making it drag out with little action and creates an odd atmosphere. There are times when you feel that the film is set in the 1950s, and then you see modern mics, talkback and people talking into mobile phones and you remember that this really is set in 2005 - just that some people prefer the way life was!
With Keillor involved, the surprise isn’t that there’s a surreal element to the story. The surprise is the form that the surreality takes. A woman in a brilliant while raincoat and high heels who walks about the radio theatre, back stage, on stage and through the stalls too. Some people see her and talk to her. Others don’t. An ethereal angelic performance that keeps you wondering most of the way through the film.
If you want to spend an evening tapping your toe, not worrying about the odd line that you can’t quite catch, and enjoy some tuneful and at times really clever entertainment, track down a cinema showing A Prairie Home Companion, and settle down into a comfortable seat. Watch out for the stars in the deep blue sky during the opening scene/credits … you’ll not see those on High Definition TV! And lots of clever shots using mirrors.
It’s hard to beat good cinema.