I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: I believe The Grateful Dead Movie is the single greatest document of the Dead experience ever released. In just two-and-half hours, it explains—or at least illustrates—what is interesting and compelling about the Dead’s music, it captures what the fans were/are all about to a degree, dips into the band’s history a tiny bit, and serves up a heapin’ helping of some of the group’s greatest songs, from rockers to ballads to deep space. Seeing the movie in a theater with a couple of hundred other Dead Heads on 4/20—part of a nationwide one-night-only screening at 540 locations—reinforced the film’s greatness to me. It undeniably captures that ineffable whatever-it-is in spades.
I originally saw the Dead Movie (it’s technically called The Grateful Dead, but no one calls it that—just as no one calls the “Skull & Roses”/“Skullfuck” album by its proper name, Grateful Dead) at its San Francisco premiere at the Northpoint Theater in mid-1977. A special sound system was brought in for the occasion, and though I recall a couple of unfortunate sound glitches that night, it was still awesome to see a film played at near concert volume. I just dug up the review of the film I wrote in the July 28, 1977 issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and I see that at the time I noted that “with virtually no advance publicity, the movie has arrived at San Francisco’s posh Northpoint theater, where it will play through August 2. It was worth the wait for Dead Heads. This movie is for you.” The brilliant 24-year-old critic claimed the Dead Movie “is perhaps the most artistic rock film ever made, and, in my opinion, among the most pleasing musically. It is devoid of the philosophical pretensions that marred feature-length films by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Yes …” Young Jackson, clearly bound for greatness even at that tender age, also talked about the “superb” editing, how “even though this film was shot during one brief period in the Dead’s career, it shows the quintessential Grateful Dead,” and raved about the opening: “ten minutes of the strangest, most spaced-out animation I’ve ever seen—a doper’s delight … Admission is only $3.50, half a buck under the Northpoint’s regular price. If you’ve ever liked the Dead, it’s worth every penny.”
Unfulfilled Pulitzer aspirations for that jewel of a review notwithstanding (yikes, not my finest hour!), the opinions in the full review don’t vary much from what I felt seeing the Dead Movie a few years later at a repertory cinema in Berkeley, and after I bought it on VHS many years ago. Then I enjoyed it anew (along with all that incredible bonus footage: “Dark Star”! “China Cat”! “Weather Report Suite”! Commentaries! Mini-documentaries!) when the two-disc DVD version came out in 2004 — perhaps David Lemieux’s capolavoro as a producer/packager of all things Dead. It’s funny, it’s trippy, it’s moving, it’s exciting … and it’s probably the most revealing glimpse into the mind of Jerry Garcia we’ll ever get. Because this was Jerry’s baby, beginning to end. (Kudos, too, to supervising editor Susan Crutcher and her fine staff, who assembled the film to Garcia’s taste and vision.)
I was struck again seeing it the other night just how Jerry-centric the film is. For a guy who was self-effacing and self-deprecating to a fault, it’s amazing how much of the film consists of close-ups of his face and his fingers. His little smiles, the looks in his eyes, the glances he shares with band members tell us so much about how he experienced those songs (or at the very least those specific performances). One of my favorite moments in the entire film is when the “Playing in the Band” jam, after going through all sorts of wild diversions and strange turns (including passages focused on Billy’s incredible drum work), finally returns to the “reprise,” and the camera is on Jerry and you see the reflection of the stage lights in his glasses, but you can still see his eyes clearly and they’re fixed on some indeterminate spot—maybe searching for the notes—and the melody from his guitar floats dreamily and gracefully, meeting Bobby’s and Keith’s parts in magical union, and all of that is communicated in his facial expression. In the extreme close-ups of Jerry’s left hand in action, his fingers almost become abstract objects as they dance and slide and stop for split-seconds, then quiver ever so slightly at the maestro’s touch. It’s like watching a virtuoso violinist, except you can almost feel the thought and intuition going into Jerry’s improvisation.
There are so many fantastic moments in the film; I’m sure you all have your own favorites, too. I always like that dark and grainy and crazy nitrous party backstage late in the film; the Winterland mirror ball spitting thousands of points of moving light through the arena; that “Morning Dew,” which is just about as good as any the band ever played—and we have it on film! I can’t even guess how many times I’ve seen the animation sequence through the years (we even used to show it to our kids when they were young), but I still get something new out of it every time—some image I’ve never noticed before.
Part of the draw of the 4/20/11 event was a healthy dose of never-before-screened outtakes of interview footage of Garcia and Weir (the latter with John Barlow) that provide fascinating windows into their quirky personalities. An unexpected bonus, though, was about 20 minutes of Europe ’72 tour photos by Mary Ann Mayer, set to a looped version of the 4/7/72 Wembley “Playing in the Band”—great to see that on the big screen. I would have loved the Dead Movie to have been louder, but seeing it in a theater again reminded me that the audio was mixed to capture the somewhat echo-y ambience of Winterland. It really sounds like the ol’ place, for better and worse—Phil, alas, does not come through as clearly as I like to hear him (but he sounds great on the must-own “Soundtrack” CDs that came out around the same time as the DVD).
One last thought: With live operas and ballets from Europe now being broadcast regularly into American movie theaters in many cities, what’s preventing Furthur (and other bands) from doing the same? Sounds like a good time out at the cinema to me! I can think of 10 or 15 bands I’d pay to see that way.
Do YOU have any reflections about the recent Dead Movie screening or the film in general? What’s your favorite Dead video?
NOTE: The Grateful Dead Movie Event will encore for one-night-only on Thursday, May 5th. Click here to get tickets and more info.