A movie about a musician, starring that musician, and featuring reenactments of the famous events of his life. It’s like Arthur Penn’s Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
If you’re at a computer with speakers, I recommend playing the actual song while you read the article. The song is great, of course, but it also sets the tone for the movie (and this review) quite nicely. Attached below, in two parts because YouTube hates things that are 20 minutes.
Arlo Guthrie’s song about how littering defeated the Vietnam draft becomes a movie, with Arlo playing himself. When he’s kicked out of college, Arlo returns to the East Coast to see his dying father and to reconnect with Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick, Matthew’s father), a couple who have moved into a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge, MA. Arlo orbits the makeshift family of hippies and bohemians that crash at the church, but a troubled biker named Shelley wrecks it, having an affair with Alice and sparking an ugly incident with Ray, who has ungroovy anger issues. On a fateful Thanksgiving, Arlo’s arrest on littering charges marks him as unfit for military service. After Shelley dies on a drug-fueled joyride, Alice and Ray renew their vows, but Ray hasn’t changed, and it’s unclear if Alice has a chance at a happy life.
At first, Arthur Penn resisted the idea of turning Guthrie’s hit song into a movie, probably because the idea felt like nepotism. In that strange way great artists tend to attract, Arthur Penn knew Arlo and many of the song’s characters (including Alice and Officer William “Obie” Obanhein) because he’d once spent summers in Stockbridge. As Penn tells it, a cryptic lyric in the last refrain changed his mind: “You can get everything you want at Alice’s Restaurant… excepting Alice.” That two-word epilogue inspired Penn to write the emotional throughline for the story, and before long Penn and playwright Venable Herndon were hammering out a screenplay that would make Alice’s Restaurant Penn’s official follow up to Bonnie and Clyde.
Penn wanted the film to be true to life. He shot in Stockbridge, convinced Guthrie and Obie to play themselves, and even filmed at the infamous church. The result is a hybrid film, suspended somewhere in the gulf between fiction and reenactment. Alice’s Restaurant opened in theatres the day after Woodstock ended in 1969, and although it wasn’t a blockbuster, it turned a small profit and allowed Penn to move on to a passion project, Little Big Man.
Something called “The Vietnam War.” Arlo’s song is a call for civil disobedience and protest, but Penn had other interests than the theatrics happening between the kids and the conservatives. Penn was far more interested in the culture that the youth were forming for themselves, entirely separate from that of their parents, and yet modeled on it in unsustainable ways. The gang in Alice’s Restaurant form their own family and way of living, but it’s the search for (and the lack of) a parental figure that hurts them.
In Penn’s words, from a 1990 interview with Richard Schickel:
“Things begin to encroach on them, and the certain childish, naïve, sweet quality was tested again and again, and eventually was ruptured. That’s the story.”
He stuttered. He couldn’t act. He flatly refused to perform some scenes or lines of dialogue because he knew they were out of his range. And yet Alice’s Restaurant is alive when Arlo Guthrie is on screen, and it sometimes dies without him. The highlight of the film, to the surprise of nobody, is the littering saga, reenacted cheerfully by Guthrie. How did littering get him out of the draft? Allow C. Emmett Walsh (in his first credited role) to explain.
(Warning: SFW, but there’s a lot of Arlo Guthrie in his underwear.)
Alice’s Restaurant is as weird and eccentric as the folk singer who stars in it. There’s nothing about Arlo Guthrie that suggests a good leading man. (Come to think of it, there’s very little about the song that suggests a good movie, but here we are, nonetheless.) Penn constructs the film out of isolated ideas and European aesthetics, and Guthrie is the stitching that holds it together. Carried by non-actors and with no discernible plot, somehow the film still works. Actually, it doesn’t just work; it haunts. The film’s amiable, aw-shucks goofery slathers a feel-good vibe on a surprisingly dark story. Penn likes his protagonists and sympathizes with their quest to slip past society’s checkpoints, but he also seems to know they’re doomed.
For all its goodwill and good vibes, Alice’s Restaurant is about the death of a dream. The wonderful people that populate Alice’s church don’t know that they’ve peaked, that their ideals won’t take them any higher. They’ve reached Hunter S. Thompson’s “high water mark.” Alice wants love, but Shelley is self-destructive and Ray is violent. Alice wants peace, but Officer Obie intrudes with the law, and the government with the draft.
A subplot concerns Arlo as he visits his dying father. Woody Guthrie was deceased by then and played by another actor, but Pete Seeger appears as a bedside well-wisher. The scenes are uncomfortable and a little ghoulish. Penn is asking Arlo to recreate his last words to his father, and we know it. And yet, it’s this absence of the father figure and the estrangement between the generations that grabs Penn’s attention and reinforces the point of the film. Just as the commune bucks their expectations and forms their own family, so Arlo’s choices about the war and the draft are his own (even if Woody Guthrie likely would have stood right beside him).
But, see, even if Arlo’s choices are his own, they’re still informed by the influence of his father. Would Arlo have been a musician if his father had been, say, a factory worker and not Woody Guthrie? (Danilo from Penn’s like-themed Four Friends has a similar problem escaping his father’s influence.) When the commune forms a family, they place Alice and Ray at the top as parental figures, forgetting for a moment that maybe that’s the last thing they need. These kids seek a revolution, but have no frame for their rebellion except the borders that they know. They fail by inches every day, until the borders are all they have left.
The criticism on Alice’s Restaurant is conflicted. Some critics see the film as a political statement, others as a thoughtless trifle that Penn sandwiched between two classics. It’s neither. Look at the final scene, with Alice standing in front of her home. It was once a church and she’s a bride, but alone as the men in her life find somewhere else to be. Shelley, her lover, destroyed himself with drugs. Ray, her husband, wants to abandon the church and its memories. Even Arlo must move on, because he isn’t the type to stay much of anywhere, least of all the site of his famous “massacree.” In the end, she’s alone on her wedding day, and her dream will fade along with so many others. At Alice’s Restaurant, you can get anything you want. Except Alice. That, my friends, is an American tragedy.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)