Call me a sucker for the '60s twice now. I vaguely remember seeing Alice's Restaurant back in 1969 on its theatrical release, but do remember being horrified at how underwhelming it was. Now over 30 years later I put those recollections aside, bowed to the idea of nostalgia, and plunked out the cash to purchase a DVD version of Arthur Penn's period piece. The movie hasn't improved any over the years, but fortunately this version has Arlo Guthrie supplying commentary, making the DVD worth some historical value for '60s junkies.
I love Arlo's 18-minute song, and feel that it is one of the most brilliant antiwar songs ever crafted. I can even see why Arthur Penn may have been attracted to the idea of converting the song to a film because Arlo's narrative style parallels the great visual artists—it tells an entertaining and humorous story that has a huge payoff at the end without didactically preaching the antiwar message at us, quite unlike typical Oliver Stone material. Besides that, Penn recognized that the song "Alice's Restaurant" was a nonfiction piece, having lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts himself.
Unfortunately, the song doesn't translate into film very well. At least screenwriters Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn butchered the treatment. They did have a difficult task since only about 30 minutes of Alice's Restaurant deals with the actual events described in Arlo's classic song. The screenplay attempts to throw in more Guthrie biographical material and toss in additional scenes to describe misguided perceptions of '60s free love, drugs, and communal hippie lifestyles. They neglect to include more songs by Arlo that could have made the movie more tolerable. It's no surprise that neither Herndon nor Penn ever wrote another major movie script after this turkey.
Sandwiched between two brilliant movies—Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man—Arthur Penn certainly has proved that he can direct. In comparison, Alice's Restaurant looks like a rough cut of Penn's home movies, and its disjointed narrative has the sensibility of an amateur filmmaker. It was marketed as the definitive hippie-generation film and does have a few authentic moments from the era, but far too few.
I chuckled during Arlo's commentary when he quips that he doesn't think Penn really understood the '60s because he kept forcing morbid tragedy into Alice's Restaurant. The fact that the Academy actually nominated Penn for Best Director that year makes me wonder what the heck they were smoking when they marked their ballots. All I can come up with is they must have been impressed that Penn was able to get any kind of coherency accomplished while filming amateur actor Arlo Guthrie and many of his real-life friends in the pseudo-documentary.
While Alice's Restaurant's painful amateurishness is an obvious weakness, it also highlights its biggest strengths. As bad as the script is, I'm sure glad that Penn decided to allow Arlo Guthrie to play himself, despite his natural awkwardness in the film. This does lend some authenticity to the project, as Arlo does have an innocence and charm. Definite pluses: Penn's inclusion of many of Arlo's real-life friends, including the real-life Alice and Ray (as extras) and the real Officer Obie and blind judge chronicled in Arlo's song. Add to that the location filming in Stockbridge, Massachusetts using the actual townsfolk as extras and filming inside the actual church where the Thanksgiving dinner and subsequent events takes place, and '60s historians and trivia buffs can find reasons to endure the film.
Small parts by professional actors are also a joy. One of the best is M. Emmett Walsh in the miniscule role as the Group W sergeant who talks to Arlo and his mates for "45 minutes without them understanding a word that he said." Character actor Joseph Boley is so effective playing the terminally ill Woody Guthrie that I had to confirm through the credits (you can also get this through Arlo's commentary) that he wasn't the real folk-singing legend. But it's pretty bad when you have to list a silent, drooling performance as one of Alice's Restaurant's highlights.
Many of the worst moments are performed by the professional actors, hired to make sure that Alice's Restaurant held together, since nearly everyone else playing major roles was an amateur. But I can't really blame Patricia Quinn and James Broderick playing the church-owning, hippie supporters Alice and Ray, nor can I fault Michael McClanathan playing the fictionalized drug-user Shelly.
It's not their fault that the screenplay has them playing peripheral characters to illustrate Penn's lessons on free love and acid-tripping. Those subplots just seem added on to make Alice's Restaurant last long enough to play as a feature film. I wish he had decided to stick with a more documentary-styled film, but I'm sure commercial interests would interfere with such a project.
Unless you are a fellow '60s junkie, I can't recommend watching the film itself. I love the period and was a folkie and hippie sympathizer, yet I find the film version of Alice's Restaurant nearly painful to watch. Its saving grace lies in the fact that it is filmed on location, features many real people from Arlo Guthrie's life, has a nice singing scene with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, and does contain snatches from Arlo's classic song. Don't watch it on video though. If you must, get the DVD version and turn on Arlo's commentary, so you can identify the various settings and real people in his life.