Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

“Group W is where they put ya if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committin’ your special crime.”

An itinerant folk singer (Arlo Guthrie) and his musician-friend (Geoff Outlaw) visit a couple of friends (James Broderick and Patricia Quinn) at the church they’ve converted into a restaurant. When Guthrie gets arrested for littering after a Thanksgiving feast, he recounts his experiences dealing with both the police and the draft board.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Arthur Penn Films
  • Counterculture
  • Musicians

Arthur Penn’s big-screen follow-up to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was this loose adaptation of Arlo Guthrie’s beloved 18-minute folk song-narrative about a series of outlandish yet true events that occurred in Guthrie’s own life several years earlier. The song itself is a delightful musical monologue — witty, off-beat, and wonderfully representative of its era; Penn’s misguided movie, unfortunately, literalizes the elements of Guthrie’s song in such a way that any deeper insight or enjoyment is completely lost. The song clearly needed to be “expanded” to fill a feature-length film, but the resulting narrative threads — primarily focusing on the troubled relationship between Broderick and Quinn, and a young drug addict (Michael McClanathan) who comes between them — are both underdeveloped and uninteresting. The primary storyline appears to be a quasi-biography about Guthrie’s own life at the time, given that he’s shown making several visits to the deathbed of his father, Woody Guthrie (played by Joseph Boley) — but we learn surprisingly little about Arlo’s past or present, other than that he seems persistently bemused by the events occurring both to and around him. Interestingly, Arlo is now a Libertarian and member of the Republican party, indicating that perhaps he really did get fed up with many aspects of the counterculture lifestyle depicted here.

Note: Those who have never heard (of) the song this film is based on will be even more lost as to the relevance of any of the proceedings on-screen — not a good sign for any adaptation.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some enjoyable musical numbers

Must See?
No; skip this one unless you have a personal interest in the subject matter. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

  1. Not must-see.

    I doubt I’ve seen this – til now – since its release (when I was 14).

    Having been a champion of underdog protagonists, it’s fitting that director Penn took the helm here. Unfortunately – at least in the entire rather aimless and lifeless first half – there’s just not that much to direct. Not that there’s that much to act either – but the performances throughout the film are nothing special.

    Things do improve some midway – with the ‘infamous’ garbage incident, followed by Guthrie’s extended physical exam for the draft board. In this section, Guthrie’s original title song does take center stage, giving the film a sudden charge. (I recall liking the song a lot as a kid; folk enthusiasts everywhere took quite a shine to it, I believe.)

    Unfortunately, the film peters out toward the end – as it shifts gears to a wedding, filmed in free-form fashion, leading to a fizzle of a finish.

    Fave line –
    Alice: I guess I’m the bitch of too many pups. Couldn’t take ’em all milkin’ me.

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