Grateful Dead

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.

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Joined: Jul 3 2007
Furthur at the Cinaplex

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.

Amen to that brother.

I'm hoping that is where Weir's TRI Studio, and Phil's Terrapin Landing are taking us.

Do you hear anything?

Bach 2 Bach's picture
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Joined: Jun 5 2007
Eyes edit

Hmmm... that is a pretty sizable chunk of time...

Mr.TheEleven's picture
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Joined: Nov 28 2010
A mixed bag

Couple random observations from seeing the movie on the big screen:

I stopped going to the movies about five years ago (am satisfied with waiting til releases come out on disc) for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the coming attractions and ads were screened at EAR-BLEED levels.

So it was with some irony that at the screening of the Dead CONCERT movie at an AMC theater in the Woodland Hills section of L.A., the sound was obscenely low. I finally got up and asked the management to crank it, which they at last did. Uh, HELLO?!? Un-fucking-believable.

Sorry, but I don't think rock concerts translate particularly well to the movie medium. A rock concert and a movie of a rock concert are simply not the same thing.

I've owned the movie on disc for several years and prefer watching it at home on TV.

Also thought that the interview footage with Jerry and Weir was a bit self-indulgent and could have been trimmed or divided up at various points in the movie. Felt a bit static to open the movie with that, rather than concert footage.

The good: an animated, relatively thin, pre-hard-drugs Jerry looked postively joyful playing the music. Loved that. And his vocals sounded wonderful. Almost too wonderful. The magic of post-production?

Very poignant moment at the end of the Weir interview in which he talks about how the band believes the planned hiatus will lead to the members living longer, then the cut to Jerry, who, well ... the rest is history.

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

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Joined: Aug 27 2008
Somewhat like being at GD concert....

Except that this is a filmed experience. The similarities are summed into a few words:
IT IS FUN! THIS IS GREAT!
I enjoyed seeing it projected on a large screen immensely.
IT IS FUN!

Hint, hint: I would like to see "Sunshine Daydream" like this, soon.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Eyes...

Haven't A-B'd them, but my recollection is that a chunk of the master 16-track of "Eyes" (including a verse, maybe?) no longer exists following its use in preparing the film????
When we put it on the So Many Roads box set years ago it was a stereo version mixed down from the original 16-tracks at the time the film was being made. I notice the timings on the two are, on SMR, 18:20 before the "China Doll," and 13:02 before the "China Doll" on the Soundtrack CD... Like I said, though, I haven't compared 'em...

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Joined: Jun 5 2007
photomatt

There is no Eyes edit that I'm aware of... It appears to be in its full splendor.

Olompali's picture
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Joined: Jun 5 2007
Yes, yes The GDM Rocks Eyes, Ears & Hearts...

But what the PTB need to do is release a massive dvd box set of new, new VFTVs.
Just put 'em out. Good Times.
I recently watched one again after quite awhile and guess what..the "special effects" not only did not turn me off...they satisfied!
Wait...I know, cheesy and obtrusive but in our current reality of massive war and strife there is seemingly very, very little of anything even remotely psychedelic looking and sounding (though I recommend Aronofsky's flick, "The Fountain.")
So Powers That Be..stop being afraid of the criticism of the look of the VFTVs and put out a box of volumes 5-10. Inexpensively, of course.

"Let it Loose
Let it all come down.."
/Jagger-Richards

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Joined: Aug 18 2007
Eyes edit

Is it true that 5 minutes are edited out of the Eyes of the World that was release on the CD set?

Bach 2 Bach's picture
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Joined: Jun 5 2007
Eyes of the World

Quite possibly one of my most favoritest 'Eyes' of all time... I originally had it as filler on a tape way back when, so I was very excited to see the whole soundtrack released on disc.

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Joined: Jun 22 2008
I wasn't expecting the

I wasn't expecting the nostalgic rush of emotion I experienced when I saw this movie with it's cranked up volume 34 years after I first watched it. The film reminded me so much of the audience energy at Winterland at the Closing. When I was at DSO at the end of March there was a guy in front of me who told me he helped direct another Jerry Garcia film from the same era: Angel's Forever, Forever Angel's.

Taking both the GD Movie and this Hell's Angels production, I can't help but thinking that Jerry was emulating Ken Kesey's decision after One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Both artists decided to immerse themselves into the "movie" as a primary mode of expression. I don't know much about the Hell's Angel's film or what lasting significance of what the Pranksters patched together footage from Furthur in 1964 will have, but I'm optimistic that the Grateful Dead Movie will be a significant historical artifact for the generations to come. I haven't seen anything better for capturing the rock/psychedelic "musicking" experience at its finest...

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