MGM // 1969 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // February 19th, 2001
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.
Alice's Restaurant is a blending of fact and fiction attempting to be a time capsule of the '60s and the generation that grew up during those turbulent times. Based on the Arlo Guthrie song of the same name, it tells the story from the song and fills the hour plus remainder of the film with fanciful scenes of what Hollywood wanted to say about the '60s. This "lost generation" seemingly had more maudlin times and melodramatic moments than fun if you would believe the film, and casts a bleak picture attempting to highlight the failures rather than the successes or good times. Where the film is accurate it is quite good and brings a sense of nostalgia for us who lived through those times; when it is not it rings false. Sometimes funny and quirky, often melancholy, the film is a pleasure at times but unsatisfying when taken as a whole. MGM does give us an Arlo Guthrie commentary track and a nice picture, but the lack of anamorphic enhancement and obvious looping in the soundtrack detracts from an otherwise fine DVD.
Arlo Guthrie, son of famed folk singer Woody Guthrie, is out of school and faces the choice of college or getting drafted for the war in Vietnam. But he doesn't quite fit into the mold of the college music program, and the length of his hair definitely doesn't fit into the small college town. So off he goes to visit his father who is languishing in the hospital, and off to his friends Ray and Alice Brock, who buy a church and open a restaurant nearby. Friends come and go, Arlo plays music in a few places, and parties alternate with times alternately harsh or funny. See just how much trouble someone can get into for littering, and how well the draft board wants somebody just a bit too eager to suit up and kill somebody.
As one who grew up during the 1960s I have an affinity for films of that period, especially ones that spoke to what I, and others like me were going through. To some degree Alice's Restaurant fits that bill, and I've seen it several times over the years. When the film is good it is very good; and I could see people I knew or people very like them on the screen. As a budding musician at the time, certainly I enjoyed the folk music and the parts dealing with Arlo as an itinerant singer/songwriter.
Beyond the realistic parts, the film is often very funny, as was the song from which the story was based. There isn't a real plot that follows through the film, but the stories of how Arlo got into a whole lot of legal trouble for littering and his adventures with the draft board are legend, and the film is worth seeing for those alone.
The film is well shot and directed; Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) provided a sure hand for the technical aspects. Some very inventive shots such as watching a film literally on the body of someone acting in the scene were well appreciated. The costuming was often quite good as well; you won't mistake the film for taking place in any other decade besides the '60s. So long as you don't try to take the whole film for gospel truth about the times, it does serve fairly well as a time capsule for those looking back or for those too young to have been there.
MGM has taken a beating in the press for their less-than-stellar record of quality for their DVD output. They certainly put out a lot of discs, and cheaper than most of their competitors, but often lacking in extras or other areas DVD fans take for granted. I'll get the chance to lampoon them some more later, but I will grant that the studio did a fine job with making the film belie its age. For a 1969 film it looks surprisingly bright, with few film defects or blemishes. Colors are well saturated, and black levels are more than adequate. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, and is very clear with little of the strident quality often associated with older mono tracks.
There aren't many extras, but I have to commend MGM for getting Arlo Guthrie for a commentary track. I found the commentary more enlightening and often better than the film itself. He provides scene-specific information while interspersing it with his own view and perspective on the 1960s and the people who he knew. The only other bonus feature is a trailer.
I've certainly been a fan of the song "Alice's Restaurant" for many years, and of Arlo Guthrie and his father Woody as well. Over the years I've always had less of an affection for the 1969 film version, for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on. Certainly there were too many moments of sadness and melodrama offsetting an otherwise comic story. I knew that much. It was listening to Arlo Guthrie's commentary track (who plays himself in the film) that I finally figured it out. As it turns out, many of the scenes were written from the standpoint of people looking at the hippie generation from the outside, without any true awareness of what it all really meant. Most of the melodrama fits into that category; apparently they couldn't say these young folks really had a good time and didn't pay some heavy price for the pot smoking and carefree living. You can still see those people in the film, but for every good time or comic event apparently the filmmakers needed to say there was a price to pay in sadness, death, or strained relationships. Yet even here I see a failure to really pursue the elements of the time that did provoke such feelings; such as a near absence of the social consciousness concerning the Vietnam War. It wasn't the war or politics that brought on these bad things and bad feelings; it was the hippie's fault.
Another problem with the film is trying to keep everything straight from the actors' standpoints. The people who actually participated in the events depicted in the film (the true ones) are in the film, but they don't play themselves; they play each other or extras while actors fill their shoes. It must have made things even harder when it came to sifting fact from fiction. In some cases this was understandable; the bigger parts demanded more than even the real person could bring out on screen. At least Arlo played himself.
I gave a few compliments to MGM for the picture and sound on this DVD; now let me knock them down a peg or two. While the picture looks very good, especially for its age, the lack of anamorphic enhancement hurts. Some shimmer and edge enhancement creep up that I don't see with the better anamorphic transfers being done now. There is also one major flaw with the sound; dialogue is obviously looped during several scenes, and even the lip-synching with the video isn't perfect during those scenes. I usually don't comment on looping, but here it was so obvious it became a distraction. One last complaint: MGM discs often have no English subtitles or captions; only French and Spanish. This is a lack for those who are hard of hearing or deaf, and even for those who just want to be sure what a muffled line was saying.
If I were to liken the film to a meal served at the restaurant, it would be a fine juicy steak served with soggy asparagus. Where the meal (or the film) is good, it is great; but you don't want to clean your plate. The DVD is a mixed bag as well; but is absolutely worth a rental for the comedy and the commentary. Fans of Arlo, the song, and the film might be happy with a purchase.
Despite serious misgivings, I'm acquitting the film as a part of 1960s filmmaking history. Only the writers get the virtual slap on the wrist for artificially inserting too much melodrama into a story that should have been a comic romp. MGM gets fined for the lack of anamorphic enhancement or English subtitles.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track