A Prairie Home Companion

Film-wise, summer usually means big-budget action films, the latest cutting-edge animated feature, or over-the-top comedies. Summer 2006 provided a huge fare (some even entertaining) of these genres: X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Mission: Impossible III, Cars, Over the Hedge, The Ant Bully, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Barnyard: The Original Party Animals.  There were also some very important smaller films this summer such as The Death of the Electric Car, An Inconvenient Truth, Little Miss Sunshine, and Mongolian Ping Pong. Two such films, A Prairie Home Companion and Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, may at first seem like the “odd couple,” but actually are quite similar in their power, though they could appeal to very different audiences. Both are movies you should look for on DVD.

A Prairie Home Companionis probably familiar to “Companion” readers. Similar to the radio show, which has been on the air since 1974 (or as Guy Noir says, “…since Jesus was in the 3rd grade.”), this fictional movie is not about anything in particular really. Less about plot (the viewer is supposedly getting a behind-the-scenes look at the final radio broadcast of the show due to the sale of the Fitzgerald Theater to a cold-hearted corporate hack), the film is more about moments, songs, conversations, and characters. And the characters are priceless as they embody the joys, pains, insights and misunderstandings of life. Whether they be portrayed by actors (Meryl Streep—the stand-out of the group, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones, Maya Rudolph or Lindsay Lohan) or by regulars from the radio show such as Tom Keith, Sue Scott, Tim Russell, and of course Garrison Keillor, octogenarian director Robert Altman allows the viewer a meandering view of human eccentricity (Keillor’s forte also). This film is the most recent of the director’s many ensemble films focusing on the arts. His earlier films include Company (dance), Kansas City (jazz), Ready-to-Wear (fashion), The Player (film), Vincent and Theo (painting), andNashville (country music).  

The film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is a visual and musical memoir of the legendary singer-songwriter of the 60’s and 70’s, Leonard Cohen, and the current artists he has influenced. This documentary, while centering on the “Come So Far for Beauty” concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2005 in honor of Cohen, also includes intimate interviews with this Canadian beat poet who put much of his work to music, and with the artists who draw inspiration from him. Artists include: Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Anthony Hegarty, Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, Jarvis Cocker and U2. While learning about this man’s formation as a person and artist, the viewer/listener is given the opportunity to specifically attend to Cohen’s spiritual roots and influences: his Jewish upbringing, his Christian sensitivities, and his Buddhist practices. His songs poignantly suggest the spiritual yearning of a man seeking the Divine’s presence in the world (and in his life). Likewise, in and through his songs we hear something of the state of the nation and world, then, and now–many of the songs having a second life in today’s context. Lian Lunson, a musician herself (composing music for The Passion of the Christ), directed the film with the support of Gibson’s Icon Productions.

While these two films represent different film genres–fiction and documentary, and different music genres—Americana folk and gospel, and 60’s beat music, they share many similarities. Besides both being 105 minutes long and rated PG-13, the power of both lies in the central characters—Keillor and Cohen—and—the music. Keillor and Cohen seem larger than life at times.  While some have called Cohen, the “poet laureate of pessimism” Keillor is not far behind with his description of Minnesotan Norwegians as “a dark people who believe it could be worse, and are waiting for it.”  Yet both are loved for their wry sense of humor, thirst for beauty and spiritual quest. But even larger than these two men, it is the hauntingly beautiful music in each which makes the films powerful. In Prairie Home Companion and Leonard Cohen the filmmakers give us recorded-live music, with little or no editing after-the-fact. Both have a refreshingly raw beauty and spontaneity. Likewise, both films seem to want to be a testament to the celebration of imperfection and longevity. The films are a far cry from MTV fare that showcases the latest young new artist. No, these films are about artists and their music–a music that has lasted the test of time, capturing the longing of the human soul.

While we have occasionally listened to Keillor’s radio show over the years, and have a couple of Cohen’s CD’s, we certainly aren’t aficionados of either, as some of are older or younger friends are.  But it didn’t matter. As we slipped into the music of each of the films, we knew there was something more to these movies. Neither are perfect movies, nor even great movies, but both are wonderful just the same. Perhaps Prairie Home Companion and Leonard Cohen fans should go together to the movies, and share each other’s music…and maybe an odd couple can bring us closer together.