Alice's Restaurant holds cultural weight 50 years after famed incident

Even with more than 18 minutes of humorous ramblings and folksy storytelling about the events that inspired it, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” needed further depth before it could fit into a runtime appropriate for a feature-length film.

The song most synonymous with the legacy of Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo and the iconic movie it inspired, Alice’s Restaurant, celebrates its 50th anniversary as Arlo returns to his father’s home state Sunday for a concert at Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St., in Tulsa.

Decades ago, Arlo stopped regularly performing the song, saving it for special occasions such as this. He will perform the tune and other material from his 1967 debut album.

Alice’s Restaurant, the 1969 film co-written and directed by Arthur Penn and starring Arlo, is often as playful as the ballad from which it originated, but with significantly greater doses of reality, drama and social themes.

“Massacree” is an effective anti-war song, the short synopsis being that Arlo is refused from being drafted into the Army due to a large-scale littering incident in his past. But the song is a greater commentary on the sometimes-comical failings of judgment in bureaucracy and government.

Penn’s adaptation does an equally good job of illustrating the lack of common-sense thinking within society’s most rigid institutions. Arlo’s experience as he is inspected for the military is made more impactful by the added insights of young, nearly naked men herded up and prodded like cattle.

Each movie scene described within the song becomes more meaningful, especially when considering the arresting officer and sentencing judge were portrayed by their real-life inspirations.

When Officer Obie, played by William Obanhein, puts Arlo in jail, they re-enact what really happened between them only a few years earlier.

Alice’s Restaurant hits and misses whenever it steps outside of its base narrative. The movie offers a more substantive context for “Massacree,” even if that context is embellished to a degree. It describes the church owned by Alice and her husband Ray. It gives viewers a clearer picture of Arlo’s established aversions to military service.

The most significant addition to Arlo’s folk tale is the up-close look at he and Woody Guthrie’s relationship during Woody’s dying days. Arlo rarely misses an opportunity to speak to and play music for his ailing patriarch, who is stifled by Huntington’s disease. He is portrayed by a silent Joseph Boley.

Woody’s death came two years before Alice’s Restaurant saw its cinematic release.

The movie’s weakness is that it adds a little too much to the “Restaurant” pot. An unnecessary and fictional subplot involving a dirt-bike-racing artist weighs down the narrative. Arlo also denies advances made by female suitors, presumably to show viewers that he’s not like those other famous musicians they know.

At the time Alice’s Restaurant was released, there were two main things viewers wanted — and received — from the story: an in-the-flesh enactment of a wildly popular protest song and a too-real tribute to a legend told by his son.

Find or request the Alice’s Restaurant album, Blu-ray and DVD at local retailers or order it online.

Print headline: Famous feast, Half a century after the world’s most storied littering arrest, Alice’s Restaurant remains an icon of hippie culture. 

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