Blair's Golden Road Blog - GD Movie Still Thrills!
By Blair Jackson
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.
I've always been rather taken with the woman dancing in the U.S. Blues segment. The one with the hanky on her head.
I suppose I'm a bit late on this, but I'd like to comment... I saw The Movie at the encore presentation in a theatre in South Florida and the entire experience was absolutely perfect. The sound was LOUD and there were no more than 10 people in the whole place. Only one thing bothered me: That being that we came into the show "amped" for the The Movie and especially the animation and had to sit through those absolutely spaced-out, almost meaningless, fuzzily impressionistic interviews with Jerry and Weir. The first five minutes of Jerry was cool, and even funny, but then it just began to draaaaaaaaaaaaag to the point of irritation. Why not put that crap at the end of the movie with a warning in the beginning to stay tuned if interested. The Movie is already long enough and the interviews just didn't make sense to preface it...
Otherwise, it was fabulous! I brought my girlfriend who is much younger and into jam bands and festivals, yet only mildly aware of The Dead. Ah... this younger generation simply don't know about the best band in the land! Anyway, she loved it... and came away with a great base understanding of the whole Grateful Dead mystique. And wasn't this Jerry's whole aim in producing this movie? To replicate the Grateful Dead Experience in a visual and audio representation? She said she felt like she belonged in The Dead experience The Movie so perfectly depicted and that she grew up in the wrong generation... HAha, yeah, don't we all!!
My final comment has to do with a great piece of timing we experienced in seeing The Movie. We were itching for a break to go outside and "re-up" when 'Intermission' flashed on the screen. We immediately bee-lined for the bathrooms and my truck and as we did so, Playin' immediately started. Guess I hadn't seen the movie in awhile because we were kinda tricked into missing Playin', but dammit, we had to have a break! Anyway, we were allowed outside to my truck for a "break" and when we came back in, the band seemlessly went into the end of Playin' as if they were waiting for us to get back to our seats to proceed with the rest of the show...
I love the GD movie because to me it's a time capsule. I don't remember the early Seventies, the first decade of my life. My parents were clueless about popular music so I grew up not knowing about rock and roll and the Grateful Dead in particular. It wasn't til my cousin posted a GD poster on his bedroom wall following Englishtown '77 that I had any minimal idea.
Thanks to the magic of video, I was able to see what things were like back then.
Although the music is great, for some reason I love the documentary aspect of the film... the backstage moments with the band and the crew, and especially the fans. It is obvious that Garcia the film maker was very interested in capturing the fans' side of the story. Because without the fans, the Deadhead experience just wouldn't exist. I wonder if most of the young California heads are alive today. I'm sure some or many have passed on since '74. It's so long ago now. Winterland itself has passed on, nothing but a condominium community on Steiner Street, San Francisco.
@Bolo24. For clarification when I said I like my Dead on acid I meant Jerry and the boys being under the influence not myself. That being said I also like myself on acid:-0. And think shows that contained a crowd of a higher mind had a better chance of providing vibes back to the band that took things to a higher level. Unfortunatly much of the post retirement period was plagued with Jerry high on coke and heroin instead of acid, so regardless of other factors the music was going to be limited.
I'm sure I was in the minority, but all I ever needed at the shows was the music. OK, maybe a couple beers. I just didn't want to miss anything, so I found great satisfaction in absorbing every note, and for me, I had to be completely coherent to do that. It's the same reason I don't drink anything at baseball games - I don't want to miss any of the nuances that come up throughout the game.
Besides, my brother often told me that acid probably wouldn't do much for me since my brain always seemed to operate on abnormal wavelengths anyway!
After seeing this movie many times on the small screen, and at my local movie house on 4/20 I think I have figured out why the pre-retirement period has always been considered the Deads greatest era. LSD. I think Garcia might agree because if there is a theme running through the show it's acid. The band interviews all appear to be filmed while they are psychedeicized and the focus on the fans certainly appears to favor the ones that have "turned on". I know I was a huge acid head when I was younger and though I did not see my first show till 85, and loved the 10 years of shows I saw, i still think the music played by the band before 1975 was the best and most ....indescribeable. I'm curious to hear other thoughts. Please chime in:-)
Ah, yes, I remember well going to the movie at a little movie house called the Shady Oak with my GD girlfriend of couple months - what a freaking panic!!! We sat right up front to the Jerry side. Though belated, this was my first GD concert-going experience. My real first one was at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in July of '78 - my God, it was soooo hot!!! I only had one truly amazing experience at a show and that was 8/16/80, the rest were just not at all as cool my pseudo trip to the Shady Oak. Fortunately, I'm able to relive that experience a few times a year, and have been doing so ever since it came out on VHS so many years ago.
I love the animation and shots of band members and between song interludes, but what I like most is how the members of the audience are captured to perfection with their idiosyncratic ways of relating to a certain song at a given moment during that song. The Chinese dude during Stella, the guy by concessions during Sugar Mags, and how could you ever forget the Chiclets guy hugging the stage, singing word-for-word and feelin' every song to his soul!!! Damn!
Cheers and Happy Mother's Day.
" Where does the time go? "
hypnocratic .... was the word i was aiming for ....
What a Party !!!! So crazy - that after watching this movie probably 100 plus times, that I did get excited to go see it again. All Good Spirits.
My beautiful wife Katie Mae and myself hurried to the theater, I was in fear of being late.
We get there in good time, watch the Europe 72 Pics - awesome shots . It made me really sad when i saw the one picture of Pigpen - he almost looked sick. The Europe 72 Tour documented as Live Music shows no sign of sickness as far as audio. He looks thin, like he lost a lot of weight.
The Grateful Dead Movie does illustrate the band, road crew, and the fans. The Hypnocatic Triangle of Life.
No more than 10 people in the theater. After the movie started, I went back out to the concession stand (they teased us with the word ice cream when they took our tickets) - they were gone. Not a soul in the place. Though i did hear another movie playing - i didn't see a person outside of our movie the rest of the evening.
We just said heck with it, Katie went out to the truck and got us some beer!
The Movie had never looked, nor sounded better. Felt like you were actually there at the concert. Made me think back to a time when me and my dad went to an Imax Theater and watched a Rolling Stones Concert - I recall my ears ringing afterwards because it was so loud.
BTW, did our movie get played on an Imax Theater .. ???? Wow - that would be the Shiznit !!! With a little pane ..
Been nice to see the extra video footage that was included on the DVD Release .. but of course, I had to work the next day.
Inspiration. Move me brightly.
Fueled my insane mind with possibilities that are endless. My little story-movie-book--whatever it may be .. The GD Movie is canon of course. When ole Uncle Sam gets locked up in the pen, who else is gonna bail him out???
Miss Liberty of course!
For those out there with bright unfocused eyes - who haven't seen the Movie yet - check it out.
Guarantee to get your feet a tapping!
and Chicken Grease.
Nephew or a niece ,
or go back
to the Chicken Shack !
i went 4/20 w/my sister who is not a head, but who got it-- the evening unfolded beautifully- and the atmosphere in the theatre was light-hearted and cheerful.
at first just kate and i were there, but then a few groups trickled in until there were around 35-40 of us. (of course there was one couple who just HAD to sit right in front of us tho the theatre had plenty of seats-- ugh!)
we had dancers and twirlers and sing-alongers and clappers and boy was it entertainment in all directions. i reaffirmed by love for the band and the heads and the people who get the bright ideas to make these movies and the people who organize the showing of them.
all in all it was a rockin night at the movies- so glad i went. i'm grateful someone decided to put this together-- thanks!