Monday, March 11, 2013
Movie review: A Prairie Home Companion
Basic plot: The last night of an old-timey radio show, where you get to know a little more about the cast and crew...both on stage, and behind it.
I grew up listening to the radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, and it has a huge place in my heart. I love the old-timey radio show. The music. The variety. The comedy. The stories. I love them all. The movie stayed true to the tone of the radio show, but focused primarily on the music. With as much as I love the variety of the radio show, when I first saw the movie, I was hoping that there was going to be a bit more of the variety in the movie. But, having seen the movie a few times, I'm actually really glad that it was done as more of an actual movie, rather than just a movie form of the radio show. That being said, I love the fact that they included Guy Noir as one of the characters. He might not exactly fit in with the rest of the characters, but that little bit of absurdity actually fits in perfectly with the humor of Garrison Keillor. Speaking of Garrison's humor, I love his writing - that very dry, slightly dirty, humor that not only draws on experiences of life, but the absurdity in life.
While the movie might not have had the same level of variety as the radio show, it most certainly had the music. The old-timey/folk music pervades throughout the movie, not only helping to set the scene, but in some cases really driving the story as dialogue takes a back-seat. Don't get me wrong...there is plenty of dialogue, and lots of interactions among characters (there isn't much "action", so the dialogue and storytelling is the main way that you get to know the characters). But the music is just such a major part of the story, almost a character itself, that it needs screen-time as well to be more than just a background character.
One of the things that I loved most about this movie is how natural it felt. It feels as though you are watching a slice of real life, and not just a story of imagination. I think this happens, in part, because of the types of conversations that happen backstage while the radio show is going on. Those conversations, while they do a lot to help you get to know the characters, don't really have much to do with the main plot of the movie. I found myself thinking during the movie, "I wonder how many of those conversations, or ones similar, actually take place during the radio show?" The other main reason that the movie felt so natural was because of the cinematography. The slow pans and zooms give the movie a sense of movement that actually draw you even more into the movie, especially during the stage scenes. Whenever they show what is happening on stage, it almost feels like you are watching a live concert of Garrison's actual radio show. And there are several single-shot scenes throughout the movie. I really respect single-shot scenes, because of the precision involved in making them. If there is any mistake, they have to start at the very beginning again. It takes a lot of talent to be able to either remember all of the lines, or to be able to improv when necessary.
A Prairie Home Companion is definitely a comedy, but there is also a dark and dreary tone to it at times. The subject of death is brought up a good bit, both metaphorically (as it is the last broadcast of the show) and literally. This mix of humor and somber emotions helps with the realism of the movie. It shows that things might not always work out exactly like you want them too, but that humor can be found in just about any situation. The tone of the film can really be summed up in one of Garrison's closing lines on the radio show (and on his actual radio show): "keep your feet on the ground, your hopes up high. Pray for rain, and keep the humor dry."
When I initially saw A Prairie Home Companion, I probably would've only given it a 3 or 3.5, because I had different expectations with what should have been in it, based on the actual radio show. But, the more that I watch it, I think that I've bumped it up to a 4 out of 5. I love the music, there are great stories and storytelling, really good cinematography, and a (mostly) great cast! I love the mix between music, dry humor, and somber mood. If you aren't much of a fan of this style of humor, music, or storytelling, then you probably will not enjoy this movie as much as I did. If you take a look at the ratings for this movie at rottentomatoes.com, there is a huge difference in the ratings given by critics and viewers. The critic rating is 81%, but the viewer rating is 49%. I would not be surprised if the majority of the viewers who rated the movie were unfamiliar with the original radio show. But as a fan of Garrison Keillor, and knowing a bit more about what to expect out of his type of humor and storytelling, I loved A Prairie Home Companion. The film has a very natural, organic feel to it...almost as if it had been a documentary of one of Garrison's actual radio shows.
Now, for the extras. The extras on the DVD can basically be summed up with "they were good, but I wish there were more of them!"
Full performances of musical numbers and advertisement segments: It's great that there are full segments of the musical numbers and advertisements, but you could hear most of the music in the background when it would cut to other scenes in the movie, so there isn't really any new music on the extra. But, as a fan of the radio show for years, the music is definitely part of what makes the show so great. So, I do like the fact that you have the option to listen to just the music, without it cutting away to other scenes. I also like that they treat the music extras as actual performances (e.g. camera movement, close-ups), rather than just being a wide shot of what was going on when the rest of the movie was being made. That being said, I really wish that there had been a version of the movie that was the actual show - what the "audience" saw on that last broadcast. It wouldn't have really added anything to the movie, but I think that it would have been a great extra to basically have a "live recording" of the show. Also, the music segments didn't have any of the songs performed by the actors. I guess they figured that since you got to see full version of the actors' songs in the movie, you didn't need to see them in the extras. But if I'm wanting to listen to the music from the movie, I would like to have been able to listen to all of the music.
Feature companion: There are 6 feature companions (Genesis of PHC, The Adaptation, A Master at Work, An All-Star Cast, Note by Note, and Signing Off), each of which are only about 6-15 minutes long. When it comes to the feature companion, just hit "play all" and watch it as one extra, rather than a bunch of individual extras. As one feature, it is a decent length and has a fairly comprehensive summary of some major aspects of what brought this movie together. But if each feature is watched individually, they will all leave you wanting more in each area...especially since each one could easily have been turned into full features. I assume that it was being presented more to people who are not as familiar with A Prairie Home Companion. But, speaking as a fan of the show, I wanted more!
Feature film, with commentary by Kevin Kline and Robert Altman: Even though I wish that Garrison Keillor, John C. Riley, and Woody Harrelson had been on the commentary (or done a separate commentary), I really enjoyed watching the movie with the commentary on. Kevin Kline and Robert Altman have fun with the commentary and seem to enjoy the process, rather than just spending the entire time talking about how great they think they are (I really get annoyed with commentaries that are nothing but the director, actor, etc. talking about how amazing they are). And I like that it's an actual commentary on the film, and not just two people having a conversation about nothing while a movie is on in the background. There are little bits of humor, interesting questions from Kevin Kline, and informative takes on the directing and making of the film from Robert Altman. It shed light on things that I had noticed, and pointed out things that I had missed before. The commentary might not be "entertaining" for everyone, but I would think that it would be very enjoyable to most movie buffs.
Recommendation: overall, I definitely think it's worth seeing. There is a pretty high re-watchability factor for me, and each time I watch it, I enjoy it a little bit more. I enjoyed the extras that were there, but I think that it would have been so easy for them to add so much more! So, while the extras were enjoyable, I found them to be a little lacking. If there had just been a few more extras, or if the extras that were there had been just a bit more developed, I would easily say that this is a must buy. But, as it is, my recommendation is split. The people who will most likely really enjoy this movie are the people who are already familiar with Garrison Keillor and his radio show. And for those people, the rewatchability alone makes this movie worth owning (if you find it somewhere at a good price). But the extras on the DVD seem to focus more towards people who are just being introduced to Garrison Keillor, and do not go in-depth enough for the long-time fans. So, my overall recommendation....I highly recommend to rent (especially if you are a fan of old-timey folk music and dry humor), and think it's worth the buy if you find it at a good price.
Be sure to check back soon for more reviews and recommendations.