A Prairie Home Companion — dvd movie review
Posted on October 12, 2006 by Chris Nelson
I grew up on the A Prairie Home Companion. Every weekend my family would drag me on some sort of day trip. Away from my computer, books, and movies, more often than not these trips were less than desirable to my pre-teen self. The only respite from this “out and about-ness came on the drive home, after sundown, listening to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on NPR. I always loved the tales from Lake Wobegone, the pun filled skits, the faux commercials, the wry folksy humor, and the wonderful, wonderful music. So, one could say I was a shoe in for enjoying the film adaptation of the radio show.
With the film, A Prairie Home Companion Garrison Keillor imagines the fictional demise of the NPR mainstay, with the show’s last performance before being shut down by its new parent station, an ominous Texas conglomerate. I must admit, the approach is a little bit strange. It’s been many years since my family’s weekly listenings, and when I heard the film’s story I wasn’t quite sure whether it was based on fact. Thankfully it’s not, but one must wonder about Keillor’s motivations behind this Tom Sawyer viewing of his show’s last farewell.
The film’s action is split between the onstage skits and musical acts, and the backstage Altman-style interactions of the performers, and therein lies the problem. The Prarie Home skits are wonderful. The music is wonderful. But a good chunk of the backstage conversation leaves much to be desired. Now, Altman is certainly more restrained here than in other films, where characters seem to be attending an imaginary Thanksgiving dinner, all jabbering away over each-other and no one really listening. Unfortunately the Altman cacophony comes into play with the majority of scenes involving Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, two actresses you could watch for hours in any other setting, but in this case will find yourself yearning for five minutes of quiet. That said, the other segments featuring Prairie Home mainstays such as cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), and Keillor himself are delightful, if a bit overly long. Tommy Lee Jones’ turn as the Texas Axman in the second half is welcome, but fails to lend the picture any sort of sense of urgency.
Visually A Prairie Home Companion is an interesting picture. Altman employs a lot of rich tones to evoke the down home feel of the show, and a strangely moving camera, ever swaying as if drunk — an unsteady cam if you will. Why he chose this, I’m not sure (Maybe to convey the show’s uncertain future?). Also worth noting is the fact that all actors performed their own songs. Streep, Reilly, Harrelson, et al prove quite competent, and could probably have some decent singing careers if they wanted. Lohan, well Lohan is the one anomaly in the production — a cracker-jack prize in a sea of fine art. Her ever-flat vocal stylings are on display toward the end, but thanks to the magic of home theater, you can chose to turn down the volume, or just plain fast forward.
If there’s one strange thing about the film, it’s is PG-13 rating. The show, A Prarie Home Companion is quite the family affair — fun for all ages. But somehow the prudish netties of the MPAA seem to think this deserved a PG-13. Granted, Dusty and Lefty’s songs may be a bit risqué, but today’s youth hear far worse things on the school playground.
When all is said and done, Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion really appeals only to fans of the radio show, or Altman’s films themselves. It could possibly win back Keillor some stray fans, but as the picture pales in comparison to the actual radio show, I’m not sure it will gain him any new converts.
New Line’s release of A Prairie Home Companion is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and English 5.1 and Stereo Surround tracks. If you know New Line you know their DVD transfers are top notch, and Prairie Home Companion is no exception.
The DVD includes a selection of deleted scenes, including longer cuts of the “Advertisement” segments and the various musical segments. These are a nice treat for Prairie Home fans as they maintain the focus on the show entirely rather than just cutting away to the backstage action. Some of the musical segments are fairly short, however. It would have been nice to see them included in the film in lieu of some of the extended ramblings.
Also included are a collection of New Line sneak peeks, including trailers for Ushpuzin and The Agronomist, a soundtrack trailer, and the theatrical trailer for the film.
The DVD’s biggest extra is Come Play with Us, a 50 minute documentary on the history of A Prairie Home Companion, and the genesis and process of making the film, featuring interviews with Keillor himself, Robert Altman, and the actors in the film. A nice little fact is that Altman’s involvement in the film was due to his wife’s fandom for the show. It’s very nice extra, standard fare for a New Line doc, and in many places more interesting than the actual film.
Lastly, the film has a commentary track featuring Kevin Klein and Robert Altman. The track starts straight off with some quirky jokes. Their conversation remains playful and entertaining throughout, with the two talking of location scouting, filming, the evolutions of individual scenes, Altman’s affinity for the long take, and all the while taking the occasional stab at eachother. At one point Altman even admits he never read the film’s script. Definitely a fun track.
In closing, when compared to other New Line offerings, their A Prairie Home Companion DVD is a little slim on extras, but those they do include are very nice additions for fans of the show, and in many ways actually bolster enjoyment of the film. A Prairie Home Companion will not appeal to everyone, but will prove a worthwhile addition to any fan’s library.
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