THE GRATEFUL DEAD MOVIE – Next Best Thing to Being There

     |    Sunday, der 20. July 2014

The Grateful Dead inspire admiration and devotion equaled only by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Their record sales were solid, if not chart-topping; the live concert was their medium for getting the music out to the fans. Unlike many other successful acts, the Grateful Dead varied their set lists from show to show and never played a song the same way twice. Each live performance was a unique experience. This unusual approach to live performance stems from the Deads‘ stint as the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Test happenings in the mid-1960s. Fans, soon known as Deadheads, starting traveling with the band from gig to gig for a new experience every night. The Deadheads were not just spectators but co-creators of the transcendent live atmosphere. The Grateful Dead were one of the few rock acts to truly bridge the divide between performer and fan without resorting to cheesy singalongs, confrontational tactics or faux chumminess.


Uncle Sam skeleton by Gary Guiterriez

Consequently, the best introduction to the Grateful Dead is a concert film. THE GRATEFUL DEAD MOVIE (1977) is culled from five sold out shows at San Francisco’s Wonderland Ballroom in 1974. The movie breaks the mold of concert documentaries in many ways. It begins with a trippy seven minute animated sequence by Gary Guiterriez, set to the Dead song “U.S. Blues”, that references images from Grateful Dead posters and album covers like the American Beauty rose, skull, cacti and choppers and introduces in reference to the song’s lyrics the Uncle Sam skeleton. After a cartoon Statue of Liberty frees multiple skeletons from prison by torching the bars, the animation transitions into live action concert footage with an ingenious sequence of fire, sparks and stage lights.

From then on, it’s elegantly filmed and edited scenes of the Dead jamming. Their mixture of rock, bluegrass, boogie, free jazz, non-European classical and ambient music avant la lettre is largely improvised, yet performed with discipline and virtuosity. Seen almost as often as the band is the audience. Unlike often gratuitous crowd shots in other live documentaries, the Deadheads‘ short appearances are memorable. They seem to be truly on the same wavelength with the Dead – they feed off each other.

The backstage scenes are also on a different level – neither stars‘ self-aggrandizement nor accidentally capturing a catastrophe in the making (“Gimme Shelter” which documented a murder at a Rolling Stones concert and its aftermath). Instead, Deadheads reveal their motivation for following the band, stay mellow when trying to get into a sold out show (policemen didn’t mind being assigned to Dead concerts because they were generally without incident, at least until the late 1980s) and discuss overpriced merch. Band members and roadies weigh options for dealing with the notorious motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels (one of whom was responsible for the murder in “Gimme Shelter”) who are planning to come to the show. Bassist Phil Lesh demonstrates an electronic bass that can pick up sounds, filter them and play them back, a proto-sampler. Singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia (who co-directed the film) in his laidback, “okay, man”, way gets a scene staged the way he wants.

The film ends as it began, on a psychedelic note. Band members and fans enjoy a hookah’s worth of hash backstage, the sound becomes increasingly distorted and the images rotate and are superimposed to reflect the onsetting high. Then cut to the Dead performing an extended jam of “Morning Dew”. The band and the audience are playing and dancing themselves into an altered state. The emotional intensity peaks, then the tension is relieved with a short, tight encore, a cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. THE GRATEFUL DEAD MOVIE is a milestone of concert documentaries that appeals not only to fans but anyone who is interested in rock music.

Natalie Gravenor