There is a certain local publication, aimed at a young (but not painfully young), hip (but not painfully hip) readership, that exercises an informal editorial policy of avoiding, if at all possible, mention of two overexposed institutions sitting at the opposite extremes of happening-ness: the Bryant-Lake Bowl and Garrison Keillor. That’s probably just fine with Keillor—the only publication he’s ever really cared about being in is The New Yorker.
Peter Rosen’s modest documentary Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes gives us the latter-day Keillor, basking in his comfortable position as the cultural lion of public radio, selling Middle Western integrity to the less landlocked corners of the world. They’re still buying, by the millions.
Rosen follows Keillor through his appointed rounds: hosting A Prairie Home Companion, working in his Summit Hill home, strolling around Manhattan, sitting for interviews and dispensing wisdom to young acolytes (“writing is a process of discovery”). With the exception of a tender fatherly moment or two, the focus is on Keillor’s professional life.
The film is unapologetically hagiographic. The narrative, read by Keillor in voiceover, is drawn from the humorist’s own monologues, so the film plays as yet another dramatization of the stolidly erudite, tastefully whimsical character Keillor has created for himself. His PHC colleagues pay him the expected tributes, with only singer Jearlyn Steele acknowledging that there’s more to Keillor than meets the ear. “He does not allow all of us into his inner circle,” she admits, “but if I can only share space with him [onstage], then that space is big enough.”
Keillor seems to be at peace with his current social and geographic station (he splits his time between Minnesota and New York), but although we hear him tell himself that it’s just as well he didn’t attain his youthful ambition of writing Talk of the Town pieces for The New Yorker (“I would be a retired alcoholic copyeditor…sitting in a bar just off of Broadway, one of those dark little bars for serious drinkers”), it’s clear that—like his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald—he has mixed feelings about his association with the Gopher State. His core audience, meanwhile, has happily embraced a prodigal-son narrative. “He did his sojourn in New York,” says a pie-baking grandmother interviewed for the documentary, “and that was a great experiment and adventure for him, but he came back home. Maybe rhubarb is a metaphor for him finding happiness in his own backyard.”
Though Rosen’s film contributes little to our understanding of Keillor’s life and character, it’s nonetheless enjoyable to watch if you are at all susceptible to the Anoka boy’s undeniable charms. In one moving scene, Keillor steps offstage during an open-air PHC performance and stands among his ponchoed rural audience in the pouring rain. The band strikes up “You Are My Sunshine,” and Keillor begins to sing, spontaneously altering the lyrics to thank a little girl who brings him a bouquet of wildflowers. It’s a rare and special gift: to be able to make small people feel big.