Arlo Guthrie, who stars in the film Alice’s Restaurant, is the son of famed folksinger and musician, Woody Guthrie. If someone was watching this film without realizing the connection between the main character and the influence Woody Guthrie had on folk music, the music may have less meaning.
Guthrie has always been connected to this movie and the theme song, which carries the film’s title. The story goes that Guthrie and his friends illegally emptied trash after a Thanksgiving dinner near the church that Alice called her restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They got arrested and were taken to jail and Guthrie says he wrote the song when they get back to the church. This was in 1965. The movie was released in 1969. The actual title of the song is “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
Music plays a central role in the movie. Either Guthrie and other people are singing songs that are the focus of a scene, or there is background music – mostly strumming guitars and banjos. The background music is played to move the story along, such as when Arlo and his friends are riding around. Because the music is all guitars, harmonicas, bass, banjo and vocals at times, it portrays the feel of the movie, which is about rebellion (in this case against the draft) and freedom of a time in which some people did not have jobs and not a lot of structure to their lives. In one scene, when Arlo is still in college, he is in a keyboard class and the students are playing Grieg and Brahms and he breaks into a jazzy version of what he is supposed to play. The teacher refers to it as “folk junk” and throws him out of class. The fact that they were playing classical music demonstrates the message of rebellion against, in this case, musical form and tradition. In another scene, while playing music in a room he’s renting with friends, the landlord tells them to stop playing their music. This is another example of authoritative control over their music. In fact, much of Woody Guthrie’s music is anti-establishment.
The characters are portrayed as hippies. Because the music would not sound the same if it were played over and over again, in other words it has a lose structure, it contributes to the mood and atmosphere of the story being told. Arlo’s guitar is like a secondary character as he carries it with him everywhere. Once Arlo gets to the church, we hear people singing “Amazing Grace.” Arlo walks by and says, “Seems like Woody might have run through here,” probably referring to how Woody traveled the country and wrote music inspired by what he saw. He visits Woody, played as his father by an actor, in the hospital, and sings and plays guitar by his bedside. Folksinger Pete Seeger is also in this scene playing banjo by Woody’s bed and they are singing “Riding in My Car” by Woody Guthrie, who died the same year this movie was released.
Later in the film, Arlo serenades Alice on guitar and we hear part of the theme from the main song, “Alice’s Restaurant.” In fact, parts of this song are heard throughout the movie leading up to the final scene in which Arlo plays and sings the song.
“Amazing Grace” is heard again during the Thanksgiving scene when everyone there is singing it. When Shelly is buried, a woman at his grave is playing guitar and singing Joni Mitchell’s “Songs to Aging Children Come” which has already been a hit by the time the movie was released.
Hearing the music alone today, without being part of the movie, would be easily identified as coming from the 1960s. The theme song is so well known and identified with Arlo Guthrie that the music and the movie are identified as one. Arlo talks about a possible career as a recording artist in the movie. However, he did not produce the kind and volume of songs that his father did over he course of his career. Arlo is associated with his father’s legacy and the theme song from this movie.