This week’s @Home picks are a trio of non-musicals all based on popular songs.
Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
Alice’s Restaurant trailer
Arlo Guthrie’s 17-plus-minute folk protest canticle is brought to the screen with sweet-sounding resonance by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man). The song’s first-person account of that fateful Thanksgiving morn when Guthrie was taken into custody for illegal dumping doesn’t come into play until halfway into the picture. (The arresting officer, Sheriff William “Obie” Obanhein, insisted that he be cast to play himself. “If anyone is going to make a fool out of me,” Officer Obie reasoned, “it might as well be me!”) Prior to that, Guthrie is put through the rigors known to many a long-haired folk-singing hippie from the era, and that includes ducking the draft board, having a redneck introduce his head to a plate glass bar room window, and declining the advances of a 14-year-old groupie. It’s only when Penn tries to ramp up the drama — Pete Seeger’s impromptu deathbed concert performed for Arlo’s dad Woody, a hint of romance between Guthrie and the titular restaurateur — that the film’s otherwise gentle pace takes a hit.
Ode to Billy Joe (1976)
Ode to Billy Joe trailer
The freeze-frame credits that open the picture scream movie of the week. What did one expect from a film directed and produced by Max Baer, Jr. aka Jethro Bodine? In the end, it was the hillbilly from Beverly who had the last laugh. Baer’s $1.1 million investment earned him a whopping $27 million return. The film was the second pairing of doe-eyed Robby Benson (as the titular jumper) and Glynnis O’Connor in the role of Billy’s high-minded girlfriend, if not love interest. You see, in her hit 1967 single, singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry never did reveal what motivated Billy Joe McAlister’s legendary leap off the Tallahatchie Bridge. That left screenwriter Herman Raucher (Summer of ‘42) ample room for invention. As Roger Ebert pointed out, Gentry’s ballad “found much of its haunting effect in its refusal to reveal why Billy Joe killed himself.” Raucher’s reason tawdries an otherwise persuasive romance for the sake of a cheap out.
We may never get to see Sam Peckinpah’s 220 minute cocaine-governed rough cut — the one EMI whittled down to under two hours, desperate to bring it more in line with Smokey and the Bandit. Inspired by the C.W. McCall song, there’s not much in the way of plot to talk about. Nor do the two leads mesh. Kris Kristofferson has the voice needed to bring a CB’er to life, and that’s it. A permed Ali MacGraw, seated in the back of a big rig, a can of Hamm’s dangling from her hand, made me laugh so hard the Coca-Cola surged through my nostrils. Her dead-voiced, finishing-school recital of dialogue made me wish they had assigned her role to Madge Sinclair, whose “Widow Woman” is the film’s true repository of female strength. It’s not the Peckinpah of Alfredo Garcia, but there’s still enough in the way of slo-mo fist fights, familiar faces, and the director’s choreography of an 18-wheeler Convoy waltz to keep it moving, good buddy.