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|Arlo Guthrie||Arlo Guthrie|
|Patricia Quinn||Alice Brock|
|James Broderick||Ray Brock|
|Geoff Outlaw||Roger Crowther|
|William Obanhein||Himself - Officer Obie|
|Joseph Boley||Woody Guthrie|
|Vinnette Carroll||Draft Clerk|
|Sylvia Davis||Marjorie Guthrie|
|Simm Landres||Private Jacob / Jake|
|MacIntyre Dixon||1st Deconsecration Minister|
|Arthur Pierce Middleton||2nd Deconsecration Minister|
|Donald Marye||Funeral Director|
|M. Emmet Walsh||Group W Sergeant|
|Ron Weyand||Cop #1 (as Ronald Weyand)|
|Eleanor D. Wilson||Landlady (as Eleanor Wilson)|
|Neil Brooks Cunningham||Medic|
|Thomas De Wolfe||Waiter (as Thomas DeWolfe)|
|Graham Jarvis||Music Teacher|
|John E. Quill||Cop #2 (as John Quill)|
|Gerald B. Greenberg||Editorial Manager|
|John Mortensen||Set Decoration|
|Anna Hill Johnstone||Co-Costume Designer|
|Jack Fitzstephens||Sound Editor|
|Thomas J. Wright||Property Master|
|Victor J. Kemper||Camera Operator|
|Dick Vorisek||Sound Re-Recording Mixer|
|Irving Buchman||Makeup Artist|
|Stephen A. Rotter||Editor|
|Warren Clymer||Production Design|
|Willard W. Goodman||Production Supervisor|
|Shelly Bartolini||Scenic Artist|
|Merle Eckert||Scenic Artist|
|Sanford Rackow||Sound Editor|
|Abe Seidman||Sound mixer|
|George Newman||Costume Supervisor|
|Marilyn Putnam||Costume Supervisor|
|Fred Hellerman||Sound Director|
|Garry Sherman||Additional Music|
|Wayne Fitzgerald||Title Graphics|
|Rhona Kane||Unit Publicist|
|Diane Katz||Production Intern|
|Barbara Rittenberg||Script Supervisor|
In 1965, Arlo Guthrie (as himself) has attempted to avoid the draft by attending college in Montana. His long hair and unorthodox approach to study gets him in trouble with local police as well as residents. He is thrown out of school, following which he hitchhikes back East. He first visits his father Woody Guthrie (Joseph Boley) in the hospital.
Arlo ultimately returns to his friends Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray Brock (James Broderick) at their home, a deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where they welcome friends and like-minded bohemian types to "crash". Among these are Arlo's school friend Roger (Geoff Outlaw) and artist Shelley (Michael McClanathan), an ex-heroin addict who is in a motorcycle racing club. Alice is starting up a restaurant in nearby Stockbridge. Frustrated with Ray's lackadaisical attitude, she has an affair with Shelley, and ultimately leaves for New York to visit Arlo and Roger. Ray comes to take her home, saying he has invited a "few" friends for Thanksgiving.
The central point of the film is the story told in the song: After Thanksgiving dinner, Arlo and his friends decide to do Alice and Ray a favor by taking several months worth of garbage from their house to the town dump. After loading up a red VW microbus with the garbage, and "shovels, and rakes and other implements of destruction", they head for the dump. Finding the dump closed for the holiday, they drive around and discover a pile of garbage that someone else had placed at the bottom of a short cliff. At that point, as mentioned in the song, "...we decided that one big pile is better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down."
The next morning they receive a phone call from "Officer Obie" (Police Chief William Obanhein as himself), who asks them about the garbage. After admitting to littering, they agree to pick up the garbage and to meet him at the police station. Loading up the red VW microbus, they head to the police station where they are immediately arrested.
As the song puts it, they are then driven to the scene of the crime where the police are engaged in a hugely elaborate investigation. At the trial, Officer Obie is anxiously awaiting the chance to show the judge the 27 photos of the crime but the judge happens to be blind, using a seeing eye dog, and simply levies a $50 fine, orders them to pick up the garbage and then sets them free. The garbage is eventually taken to New York and placed on a barge, to be taken out and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, Arlo has fallen in love with a beautiful Asian girl, Mari-chan (Tina Chen).
Later in the movie, Arlo is called up for the draft, in a surreal depiction of the bureaucracy at the New York City military induction center on Whitehall Street. Because of Guthrie's criminal record for littering, he is first sent to the Group W bench (where convicts wait), then outright rejected as unfit for military service.
Upon returning to the church, Arlo finds Ray and members of the motorcycle club showing home movies of a recent race. Shelley enters, obviously high, and Ray beats him until he reveals his stash of heroin, concealed in some art he has been working on. Shelley roars off into the night on his motorcycle to his death; the next day, Woody dies. Ray and Alice have a hippie-style wedding in the church, and a drunken Ray proposes to sell the church and start a country commune instead, revealing that he blames himself for Shelley's death. The film ends with Alice standing alone in her bedraggled wedding gown on the church steps.