A new documentary about Garrison Keillor (creator of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion) is subtitled The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes. The documentary, however, does not explain the origin or meaning of Keillor’s red shoes. That might have been a minor quibble, but it turns out to be a symptom of deeper flaws with the documentary. Nevertheless, current fans of the show and future students of Keillor’s may find the movie a delightful and important snapshot of the man with a face made for radio.
Fly on the Wall
Filmmaker Peter Rosen got very good access to Keillor’s home and work while shooting The Man on the Radio. As he told our film-festival audience, and as is apparent from the movie, Rosen was a fly on the wall. Rosen and his video equipment would stay in the room with Keillor while he worked, to the point where Keillor would begin talking to himself, apparently unaware that Rosen was still listening in. Rosen occasionally uses these internal monologues over video footage of Keillor going about his business. Keillor rides in a cab or walks the streets of New York, a monologue from another time and place running on the soundtrack.
But a fly on a wall is limited in what he can learn. He can’t ask questions, steer the conversation, or challenge someone who is telling a lie. He can only observe. I am not a fan of the talking-head documentary, but The Man on the Radio might have benefitted from some direct questions. Rosen seems unable to tell his story very directly. For example, Keillor doesn’t mention the red shoes, and Rosen never asks, so we’re left not knowing the meaning of the title.
Likewise, Keillor has occasionally made the news for his divorces and marriages. Most recently he made news for a tiff with his neighbors. Rosen doesn’t bring any of this up — not that I necessarily want to hear dirt on the avuncular old liberal — but those are the kinds of things an audience ( my festival audience, in fact) might have wanted to know. In the Q&A with Rosen, these were the first questions asked.
Genius at Work
What the movie does present is a peek into how Keillor’s work habits (big, heavy laptop - always on, Keillor focused and oblivious to the rest of the world, lips moving as his internal voice leaks out) and his relationship with his colleagues (high expectations, little direction, friendly but impersonal).
One of the more interesting and telling moments is a scene centered around a duet with Jearlyn Steele, a short, heavy black woman in flashy and colorful clothes, contrasting starkly with the tall gangly white man in the non-chromatic suit. Visually, they couldn’t be more different. But they have a common Christian heritage that taught them both the same hymns, and they can share a stage and sound like they are perfectly matched. But after the show, Steele acknowledges that as good as they are together, she doesn’t feel like she knows him. She knows his stage persona, but she doesn’t know his private self.
One for the Ages
For a fan of the show such as me, the movie is almost as entertaining as listening to the show, except for the montages of disjointed video under unrelated audio, which feel like filler. And some of the most interesting anecdotes came from the filmmaker’s Q&A rather than from the film (for example, Rosen recalled that Altman told him he considered Garrison Keillor one of the few true geniuses he had ever worked with).
Add that all up and you get 90 minutes of documentary (compared to a two-hour show on the radio), that’s slightly less entertaining. Maybe that doesn’t equal a very strong recommendation.
But recall the Robert Altman movie called “A Prairie Home Companion,” written by Keillor. It’s about the death of the radio show and its host’s stoic acceptance of its passing. It’s a sad theme for a man who is still going strong, but since Keillor himself brought it up, he might rest a little easier knowing that Rosen’s documentary will give future fans and students a snapshot of the man in the red shoes. Maybe they’ll find something in the 90-minute movie that’s not in Keillor’s thousands of hours of radio broadcasts.
They just won’t find out why he wears those red shoes.