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Alice’s Restaurant

Review of a Thanksgiving classic album and it’s turkey of a movie adaptation

“Alice’s Restaurant” was the debut album of musician Arlo Guthrie, son of folk musician Woody Guthrie. The main song on the album “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” has become a Thanksgiving classic since its release in 1967, airing on the radio every Thanksgiving since then.

Record of “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Photo by Mr. Biller)

The album is split into two halves, the first half which consists of the satirical song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” which runs up to 18 minutes long, and the second half is composed of a handful of short two to three minute songs. 


The main song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is a great song… if you can even consider it as one. The song is made up of a long story spoken by Guthrie over guitar playing. The story is this: Guthrie and his friend decide to get rid of some garbage for their friend Alice, who lives in a church. However, they find out that the dump has been closed for Thanksgiving, so they dump their trash in a hole. A cop, Officer Obie, searches through the trash to find a clue who dumped it, and finds a letter to Guthrie in the trash. Asking Guthrie about it, he confesses to dumping the show and is arrested. This later affects his ability to get drafted for the Vietnam War.


The song is written in a deadpan, rambling way, with wordy lines, such as “They got a building down New York City, it’s called Whitehall Street, where you walk in, an’ you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected.


The song is a great satire of the draft, and has some great lines such as “Obie, did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?”

The back of the record. (Photo by Mr. Biller)


The second half is also pretty good, although I didn’t find any of the songs memorable. The songs don’t also have the rambling style of deadpan writing that I loved from the main song, however I still enjoyed them. However they are nowhere near as loved as the main song.


The song has been playing on the radio every year since its release and is considered a great anti-protest to the war.


Its movie adaptation however, is not as good. The movie, which was released in 1969, has sort of been forgotten. Why is that? Well seeing how the movie was uploaded onto Youtube, I sat down and watched it. 


In 2023, Guthrie said that the movie was “frankly, garbage,” and that he had walked out of the premiere of the movie. My thoughts exactly. 


When I listen to the song, I agree with co-writer and director of the movie Arthur Penn when he said the song had movie potential. However, the film was dead in the water under the lead of Penn and co-writer Venable Herndon. Shakespeare they are not. They’re not even up to the level of modern Saturday Night Live writers, and the only thing you need in order to become the writer on that show is to have no sense of humor and a set of working fingers to type. I find the Dictionary more of an interesting story than this boring string of nonsense. 


But what is the story? Well that, my friends, is a good question which I don’t have an answer to.

A film doesn’t need a big plot to succeed. Films with little to no plot, such as “American Graffiti,” “Clerks,” and “The Big Lebowski” have gone on to be famous. The show “Seinfeld” even became known as “the show about nothing” even if that isn’t 100 percent correct. 


However, with the film being based on a song known for it’s story, you would at least expect the movie to have a story. The film’s main story, the story of the song, feels like a stranger in its own story. The film, which is 1 hour and 50 minutes long, is in my opinion, 1 hour and 30 minutes too long. The song’s story, which is 18 minutes long, only covers 20 minutes of the movie, and the song’s story doesn’t start in the movie till 1 hour in. Those 20 minutes that cover the song’s story feel more out of place than a young kid in a McDonald’s at breakfast time. 


I praised the song for its rambling style of writing, which is present (albeit taken verbatim) in the 20 minutes covering the song. However, that form of writing is scarce in the rest of the movie. The rambling sort of writing that the song is known for is featured in the first 10 minutes of the movie, however, it disappears like a plane going over the Bermuda Triangle and is hardly featured again for the rest of the movie besides for the 20 minutes that covers the song’s plot. For crying out loud the plot of the song feels like an afterthought in its own movie.

The second side of the record. As you can see, it’s scratched up. (Photo by Mr. Biller)

What happens in the rest of the movie though? Well for the other 1 hour and 30 minutes we get to see Guthrie’s hippie friends do hippie things. That sounds cool on paper. Who wouldn’t want to see hippies play songs in a smoky room. However, the film takes what could be interesting, and dulls it down till it’s flat and boring. Guthrie and his hippie friends hardly do anything in the film. I could put a bunch of 1960’s buzz words into an AI writing software and it could come up with a better story. 


The characters are also as interesting as dust. Two of the main characters are Alice, from the story, and her on-and-off boyfriend Ray. Also there are a bunch of hippies who you think will become main characters, but are barely featured.


 The only hippie worth talking about is Guthrie’s friend Shelly, who is a heroin addict. Believe it or not, I came to the movie to see Guthrie at the draft board, not watch him try to get his friend off heroin. If I want to watch a bunch of drug addicts, I’ll watch “Caddyshack.”

While I’ve gone into what I didn’t like about the movie, I would like to take a minute to point out what was good. The 20 minutes that adapt the song’s plot are good, albeit an inferior substitute to the song. 


Another part I liked is the scenes of Woody Guthrie on his deathbed. Guthrie’s father was on his deathbed when Guthrie was originally making the album, and the film focuses on it a little. The best scene from this subplot is a scene where Guthrie and fellow folk musician Pete Seeger play a song for Guthrie’s father while he lays in his hospital bed. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film made Woody Guthrie roll in his grave.


 Another scene I liked was the ending, with the hippies throwing a wedding for Alice and Ray, with them all in costumes. 


The song made me want to go to Alice’s Restaurant. This movie makes me want to douse it in gasoline and light a match. At best the movie is boring and at worst it’s a mess of thinly written ideas strung together. While the album is rightfully considered a classic, the movie is rightfully forgotten, and maybe those are both for the best. 

The front side of the record. (Photo by Mr. Biller)
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