Apr 22


By Tyler Blue

Jerry Garcia struts offstage as the catharsis of a monumental “Morning Dew” still resonates through the air. The expressions on the audience member’s faces are as if they have been in the presence of God. The man who has just delivered the cosmic gospel only wants some cold water as he searches the green room. He exits, comes back in, sits down and takes a few bites of a cupcake before abruptly hustling back onstage to raise the roof with “Johnny B. Goode.” This is only one of many scenes you’ve never seen in any other concert video. In the discussion of that genre’s best, The Band’s The Last Waltz, Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii tend to get the most mention, and deservingly so. What sets The Grateful Dead Movie apart from those classics and all of its peers, is how comprehensive it is in capturing every possible angle of every aspect related to producing and attending this series of concerts. Among other unique perspectives, we get to hang with fans munching on psychedelics while camped out in line for tickets, talk to a hot dog vendor who prefers the music of Sha Na Na, sympathize with a backstage door attendant dealing with persistent hippies and grasp the concept of “work hard, play hard” while the band’s crew gets debaucherous with a tank of nitrous.

In 1974, the Grateful Dead were at their absolute peak of musical prowess when they decided the pressure of supporting a massive organization and the strain of touring – both physical and financial –  were too suffocating. When they booked a run of five hometown shows in October, nobody knew for sure when or if they would play together again. Winterland Arena was an old ice skating rink which became the Dead’s San Francisco refuge in the early-to-mid ‘70s after they outgrew the Fillmore. Watching this film, there is such a palpable sense of how charged this dingy, old building was with positive energy after hosting so many Dead excursions. The room serves as another character in the film as we are taken through what feels like every one of its backrooms, corridors and even the block which surrounds it.

A calling card for the movie is its reliance on fan footage. We see them walking into Winterland, waxing poetic in the halls, speaking out against perceived injustices and, most of all, having their young minds blown by some of the best music they’ve ever heard. Being a voyeur while these sensual 70s hipsters dance, eyes closed, with fluid abandon offers a window into a sacred group ritual. I thought to myself a few times – like during the alien abduction section of “Dark Star” -  “That’s almost exactly how I’d be dancing at that moment.”

These cinematographers are clearly tapped in as they know when to zoom in on someone having an epiphany during a stratospheric jam. Frequent shots of one smiling freak riding the rail provide comic relief as well as an embodiment of the music’s transcendental power. Deep into a liquid, crystal version of “Eyes of the World,” the camera flashes to a woman in a blue top digesting the full impact of the song’s beguiling “Stronger than Dirt” coda. Anyone who has been in her position understands that she is being ripped apart and reassembled in the best possible way. I felt tears roll down my face as I related to that sensation of having the best moment of your life at rock ‘n roll concert. On the other side of the coin, one of the film’s only bummers is that the emphasis on the fans goes too far. It’s painful when the camera runs away from “Eyes” and other primal jams for non-complimentary crowd shots. Although, given that all the cameras are synched, it’s incredibly cool to know what was going on around the venue at one specific moment. Editing this thing had to be a major bitch.

In its one-night-only theatrical re-release, which conveniently fell on 4/20, the movie began with two previously unreleased interview segments from Garcia and Bob Weir. When he felt like talking, Jerry Garcia had to be one of the most charismatic and alluring figures in the music world. Ironically, the man didn’t say more than a handful of words onstage after the early 70s. Speaking candidly while cast in angelic lighting, it was as if he was connecting with us from beyond the grave. I suddenly felt so close to this man who checked out of the earthly plane 16 long years ago. His San Francisco hippie intonation is so endearing as he expresses humble insights about his music and other philosophical musings. “I couldn’t imagine having to go out there and do something weird like Bowie,” he remarks. “Well, weirder than what I’m already doing…” His funniest moment is later in the movie when he tells of the time he threw Phil Lesh down a flight of stairs in a post-set rage. I know we all wish we could have been a fly on the wall for that.

In this era, with his jet black hair, puffy beard and relatively svelte figure, the guy is a rock Adonis. He’s cooler than cool; at least to me. For those of us who only saw him live when he practically had his chin resting on his chest, it’s a hoot to observe every instance of feisty body language he brings to the stage. He fully realizes the extraordinary aural information being transmitted through his fingers. The band as a whole has achieved a level of unmatched synchronicity allowing for an almost supernatural dexterity matched with thunderclap precision. Sure he was an alcoholic with zero stage presence but the lazy jazz piano of Keith Godchaux is so integral to the overall equation. Donna Jean Godchaux adds her vocal complements without offending anyone with her notorious off-key antics.

Thanks to the large format and pristine surround sound, we observe the exotic nuances of a bass-drum tandem which relishes in making up its own set of rules. Lesh’s playing is like a collision of Escher and Dali, painting with watercolors on Mars. It’s impossible not to take away what a devastating drummer Bill Kreutzmann was during the three years he handled the position solo. Sure the Dead were amazing with the addition of Mickey Hart but here we see how unabashed Kreutzmann is in his willingness to drive the ship. He attacks the kit with a calculated recklessness and a twinkle of mischief in his eye. When he explains in one scene how drumming can feel like dancing when locked into a groove, it colors one’s perception watching him the rest of the way. His intricate, aggressive work during “Eyes” is truly a thrill to behold. Even with the deluxe sound, the ears still have to be trained to listen for Weir. When you find him, his rhythmic stylings are often profound.

When anyone thinks of The Grateful Dead Movie, they can’t help but think of the opening animated sequence designed by Gary Gutierrez. Sure it’s pretty dated at this point, but for anyone who saw the movie back in the day, it’s delightfully nostalgic. It popped right off the big screen and from the fourth row I was riding that motorcycle with the skeleton Uncle Sam. When those first majestic notes of “The Wheel” unfurl, the hills come alive as tapping feet and the sky morphs into psychedelic geometry, I know I’m home. This movie is quirky as the band it’s about and serves as a big love letter from them to their fans. Taking on the task of director, Garcia poured way more energy and money than he bargained for into the production. It became something of an albatross but clearly all the hard work paid off. When it was released in 1977, the Dead were back onstage, once again achieving nearly impossible feats. No matter how things have evolved over the years, this movie will remain as a timeless snapshot of the definitive synergy between a band and its audience. At least for one night across America, those whose lives have been forever altered by the gifts the Dead bestowed, shared together in a group consciousness and returned together to drink from the well.