Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo has managed to spend a lifetime as a folk singer without really following in his father’s footsteps. Indeed, the two seemed to have little in common except for their left-wing politics. This Arlo demonstrated so exuberantly, and at great length, in the epic-length song he’s still best known for, 1966’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
The younger Guthrie’s shaggy-dog tale of his arrest for littering and his subsequent Vietnam War draft resistance might have made a decent, straightforward narrative screenplay. But director Arthur Penn, at the height of his Bonnie and Clyde-era French New Wave-style experimentalism, doesn’t present the story that way. Instead, Guthrie (and one of the other real-life participants, Stockbridge, Mass. Police Chief William “Officer Obie” Obanhein) re-enact the story in a series of surreal vignettes. So some of the movie gets lost in hippie excess, though the film (which opened just days after Arlo Guthrie’s performance at Woodstock) also plays like an elegy for the not-quite-dead-yet hippie era. The movie also pays homage to several real-life folk singers, including Pete Seeger and Lee Hays (who appear as themselves) and Arlo’s late father, played in hospital deathbed scenes by Joseph Boley.