December 7, 2017 -- You'd have to be a fan of the Grateful Dead to watch a four hour long documentary film about this band. I am not a fan, but I attended one of their live shows. So, I spent five and a half hours watching this (watched it via internet video streaming with buffering, and took a few breaks) last night.
I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and this band is from that era, formed in California in 1965. It represents the Beat Culture and the Hippies that followed, and I think that is its continuing appeal after all these years. The Grateful Dead represents a happier time, a hopeful time, when all things seemed possible, including a big tent, where all faiths, all political beliefs would be welcome.
According to this film, the band itself is the embodiment of this notion of inclusiveness, since it represents a variety of musical influences from classical, psychedelic rock, experimental music, jazz, country, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, and space rock. The band is often described as a rock and roll band, and they definitely play some music that fits that description, but much of the band's music is different, unique in fact. There simply is no other band like it.
While there are many people who have played and are playing in this band (they are still playing concert dates) the heart and soul of it was the late Jerry Garcia, a founding member of the Warlocks, which included members of a former jug band. The Warlocks changed the band's name to the Grateful Dead after they discovered another band already had the name Warlocks. That other band known as the Warlocks later became the Velvet Underground.
The founding members were lead guitarist Garcia, guitarist Bob Weir Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums). The core group of musicians stayed together for 30 years. According to the documentary, these musicians just wanted to have fun playing music. They were signed to a record deal by Warner Brothers records, which soon discovered the band liked to play with the controls of the recording studios and experiment with music. Signed as a rock band, Warner Brothers executives (one appears in the film) discovered the Grateful Dead was something else.
After racking up a lot of studio time without much to show for it terms of record sales, the band decided to make a commercial album, “Workingman's Dead” (1970) featuring music with a country influence, and the cut some tracks that commercial radio stations actually played. It was a huge success. The approach to this album was different. The band rehearsed its material in advance to reduce time needed in the studio.
Even with this commercial success, the band remained an acquired taste. It had a loyal following, the “Deadheads,” who followed the band around the country, literally, sometimes driving long distances to see live concerts. Unlike most bands, the Grateful Dead did not ban live recording of concerts by fans. Since each concert was different because of frequent improvisation by Garcia and others in the band, some concert tapes have become highly valued by fans.
This documentary focuses not only on the band, but the fans, the roadies and others involved in the band in one way or another, including Wharf Rats (non-chemically dependent Deadheads) Spinners (Jerry Garcia worshipers). The band never really grew out of the drug culture that fueled it. Drug use was rampant, and it claimed more than a few lives among the band members and others in this large traveling circus.
The often chaotic business dealings with the band are detailed by former manager Sam Cutler who became so angry with the band's decentralized, collaborative decision-making process that he quit. Despite the band's indifference to financial success. The band eventually did generate a lot of revenue from recordings.
Cutler has a lot to say about the band. Another person who has a lot to say about Jerry Garcia is Barbara Meier, Garcia's girlfriend at two different times in his life, separated by 30 years. Other than that, the film doesn't get into Garcia's other relationships with women.
There is some discussion of music structure in the film, along with a discussion of lyrics by Robert Hunter. There are also interviews with John Perry Barlow. He is seen visiting the grave of one of the band members. Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a former Wyoming cattle rancher, is getting his own movie soon. Barlow and Bob Weir wrote a lot of songs for the Dead, as did Robert Hunter.
There is a lot of music in this film, of course, and a detailed description of the band's innovative “wall of sound” concert music system, comprised of 500 speakers, stacked 36 feet high (to match a standing sound wave) with dual phase microphones to cancel out feedback. The backbreaking job of setting up and transporting this huge system is described, along with a discussion of how the system was developed.
Having been to a Grateful Dead concert and having seen this film, the devotion of these fans remains a mystery to me. It is much the same as fans of any group, person, religion, or philosophy, I suppose. It is a kind of tribal allegiance that is difficult for outsiders to share. Some people hear this music and it clicks. Others hear it and it doesn't click for them. Having seen this long film, I do understand the band and its music better than I did, so that's something.
On second thought, I will attempt an explanation for the fans. In this film, it seems The Grateful Dead are a band with more than just that unusually eclectic catalog of American music, but one that is unusually generous with its fans. That enormous sound system is part of it. Allowing live recording is another. The fact that the band is not primarily a studio band, but a skilled, passionate, improvisational, touring band is another part of it. Their whole thing is sharing music with the audience. Maybe that is why the band seems happier with a smaller crowd than in those huge stadiums where most of the fans are far from the stage. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.