One time I watched Easy Rider with my father. Now, my late father was a straight square guy, the kind of guy who was studying while hippies were doing hippy things in the 60s. So when we got to the scene in the classic movie where the characters trip out on drugs and the movie goes appropriately trippy, we looked at each other. He wondered what was going on. It was a foreign experience. I was just a teenager then and I had no idea either. How was I to know if it was accurately depicting what it’s like to trip on drugs?
I remembered that experience as I was watching the movie Alice’s Restaurant (1969). Who am I say whether this movie accurately depicts the feel and mood of the 60s? I know there were times when I wondered if it would make more sense to me if I were stoned. Perhaps it would have helped if I had been older than one when the movie came out.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from this movie but I can say what I saw was much darker, creepier, and more sad than I expected. I anticipated lots of depictions of free love and people flashing the peace sign and the younger generation egging on the cops. I was right on that count. Far out!
I knew parts of the song would play a role in the movie but I was disappointed that the movie did not really add anything to the events that unfold in the classic song. What I was not expecting was a sad drama with a funeral and a dysfunctional marriage. Maybe it is because I find the song funny and sort of inspiring — silly me! — that I thought the movie would be funny and aspiring as well.
Instead, I found the movie dragging at times. Perhaps this is an unfair assessment but I found myself liking Arlo Guthrie less after watching the movie and listening to his commentary.
There are, I suppose, a few people who are unfamiliar with the song, its background, and history. Wikipedia has a good summary of the background and of the evolution from a song to a movie. There is also a good Blogcritics interview with Arlo by Richard Marcus.
In short, the song (while up there in length with another great tune, “American Pie”) tells a fascinating story. Actually it tells two stories. One story is about the time Arlo, after eating Thanksgiving dinner, thanked his hosts, one of whom was named Alice Brock, by trying to throw away the trash. Only the dump was filled (whoever heard of a dump being closed?) and so he littered and got busted for it by Officer Obie.
The second is when Arlo is called to the draft board. While they consider him a great candidate for a solider after he acts bloodthirsty and says he is ready to kill, he is ultimately rejected because he was a litter bug.
The song does a great job of tying the two events together. In a later version of the song, he updates the material to include the possibility that the 18 ½-minute song is the true explanation for the 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes. The song is fascinating and entertaining. My hope was the movie would fill in some gaps like, what happened between those two events and what was it really like at the induction center sitting with the criminal element?
Is the acting good? Yes. Does Arlo do an especially impressive job? Definitely. But is it clear why the song had to be stretched into a two-hour movie that seems more of a drag than a joy? Not really. It does not help that this movie just has not aged well. What may have seemed authentic at the time — like characters flashing the peace sign — just seems clichéd or a stereotype today.
You know it’s a bad sign when the bits of the movie you are most excited about are the cameos — folk singer Pete Seeger singing in one scene, the real Alice in another. Officer Obie plays himself, after reportedly telling Newsweek that if he was going to come off looking like a fool he’d rather do it himself. The judge also plays himself.
The DVD comes with an audio commentary by Arlo Guthrie wherein he explains about the history of the song and the movie. It is interesting and entertaining, perhaps more so than the movie itself. He says the movie seems too sad. While people have fond memories of the movie, the reality is, it’s full of dramatic, sad material.
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” the song says. Yes, I’d like to order a listening of the song, but hold the movie please. As an historical footnote, it is interesting. But as a movie, it does not stand up well on its own.