Vet PBS arts documentarian Peter Rosen’s “Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes” takes an aptly rambling, leisurely, fond look at this professional anachronism, whose gently satirical variety show celebrates a small-town Americana of yesteryear (or never-was). Portrait captures the charm of “A Prairie Home Companion” and its creator considerably more than Robert Altman’s star-heavy 2006 feature of the same name. Currently playing both fests and limited theatrical runs around the country, the pic is assured a future as a pledge-drive perennial.
Eschewing archival materials or outside analysis (save from fans) of “Home’s” appeal, Rosen follows Keillor and his mostly longtime collaborators (as far back as the mid-’70s) as they take their show on the road. While based in St. Paul, Minn., and occasionally journeying to major burgs like New York (Keillor’s second home), the program takes pains to visit Midwestern hamlets still populated by Scandinavian-heritage Lutheran farmers and the like, a la his beloved, fictive Lake Woebegone.
Keillor invites locals to be interviewed, sing, even hold bird-call competitions. The weekly live broadcast’s rehearsed (if also somewhat improvised) elements include roots musicianship, serial-style skits, mock commercials and the latest 20-minute dose of lightly absurdist Woebegone anecdotes.
“Red Shoes” just briefly glimpses Keillor’s offstage life (he became a father at age 55), and it remains for another film to probe the deeper reasons for “Home’s” against-tide popularity.
Keillor hints at one himself, opining, “Kindness is a constant presence in America. … This is a great country, and it wasn’t made so by angry people.” Still, he admits that too many people’s beliefs are now influenced by “ranting” on the tube, radio or Internet. Whether kindness still flourishes or is an endangered species here can be debated. But surely Keillor’s suggestion of the former taps wistful collective nostalgia for a reassuringly simpler American life of smaller, warmer, less technology-blockaded community.
At nearly 90 minutes, the docu might eventually wear out those with just a casual interest (an estimated 4 million “Prairie Home Companion” listeners not among them). But co-lenser Rosen’s affectionate images of heartland landscapes and citizenry keep the nicely turned package flavorful. Soundtrack is entirely given over to retro blues, country, bluegrass, jazz and gospel music from Keillor’s regular band and some frequent guests.