Midnight Movies: THE GRATEFUL DEAD

DeadI first saw The Grateful Dead movie, if not upon its initial release in 1977, then sometime soon after at midnight showings around the country. Already a Deadhead, but one who had not yet seen them live, I took every opportunity to see this film again and again. It was a staple of the midnight movie scene back in the late seventies and early eighties along with Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, Pink Floyd’s Live At Pompeii and George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (no relation!).

At the time, The Grateful Dead movie was, for me, a chance to experience the scene and the music in a way heretofore unavailable to me (I was 14 years old and still a year or 2 away from seeing them live and in person). For my friends, who were not as into the Dead as I was, it was a good idea that quickly grew tiresome. Many of my friends liked the idea of music and the notion of getting high and going to a midnight concert movie more than they actually liked the music or the films themselves. Even Live At Pompeii put some of my closest friends to sleep while I sat stoned and mesmerized by the music and images parading before me. It was certainly the seeds of a separation that would become more prominent as I discovered that music, particularly that of the Grateful Dead‘s, would touch me in a way I had never before imagined possible; the music would reach deep into the inner resources of my soul and lift me to places undiscovered and unexplored. It was as close to “god” as I could ever expect to get.

For most of my friends, however, music was ultimately preferred as background noise, something to tap your foot to or hum along with, but not something to immerse oneself in, not something meant to be spiritually and physically interactive.

Dead2Lo these many years later, I found myself watching The Grateful Dead movie once again in its entirety. I had previewed clips and songs a hundred times over, but it had been ages since I committed to sitting down and taking in the whole film itself. And no more appropriate occasion than the 67th birthday (were he still with us) of lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia. The experience would prove eye-opening as I came to understand the journey that is The Grateful Dead movie. Unlike any other concert film I’ve seen previous, The Grateful Dead movie, directed by Garcia and Leon Gast (B.B. King Live In Africa, Hells Angels Forever, When We Were Kings), attempts to capture the Grateful Dead concert scene from every viewpoint. Certainly from the audience’s perspective, but also from the band’s perspective; setting up, rehearsing, performing, taking breaks, traveling. Even the Grateful Dead road crew, who would set up and break down the Dead’s enormous sound system (the infamous Wall Of Sound), are shown getting silly and doing nitrous backstage when their backbreaking work was done, were as much part of the experience as the musicians themselves and the film includes them as equal members.

In addition to following the band both backstage and onstage, the filmmakers also lovingly follow the audience in an attempt to recreate and capture the entire experience: lining up outside days in advance to get the best seats, wandering around the halls once inside, waiting for the band to take to the stage, the many journeys and experiences that would take place during intermission, conversations, opinions, drugs, laughter, arguments. Even the guy who sells the pizza and hot dogs.

All of this, in addition to its concert footage (which is spectacular), creates a thrilling document of time and place, an experience unlike any other, that helped sustain the popular phrase “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” The Grateful Dead movie leaves no doubt that truer a statement has never been made. It is also a demystifying experience, laying bare the band members, their audience, and even the filmmakers themselves.

Though not released until 1977, the film was shot in October 1974 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Grateful Dead performed five concerts that were all filmed on 16mm. It was a significant point in time both for the band and its audience. Cultural shifts were on their way and the scene would soon change.  The band themselves were on the heels of beginning a year-and-a-half long hiatus from touring. This was also the end of the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound, aptly named for its sheer size and presence, that was the Grateful Dead’s sound system throughout 1974.

wallEnvisioned by master sound man and LSD chemist Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the Wall Of Sound was unlike anything seen before. As Stanley himself described it:

“The Wall of Sound is the name some people gave to a super powerful, extremely accurate PA system that I designed and supervised the building of in 1973 for the Grateful Dead. It was a massive wall of speaker arrays set behind the musicians, which they themselves controlled without a front of house mixer. It did not need any delay towers to reach a distance of half a mile from the stage without degradation.”

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) the sound in this film is extraordinary. It has to be. And the DVD offers a newer 5.1 mix that is crisp and clear and places you dead smack in the Winterland Ballroom as if you truly were there in body as well as spirit. The film’s original theatrical mix is also included on the DVD and this is important as Garcia had very specific ideas about how he wanted the film to sound in a movie theater. Being that a movie theater and a living room are two very different environments (though that gap is quickly closing), the two mixes allow you to choose the particular type of sonic experience you would like to have. Widescreen Review’s comments on the two soundtracks is not far off the mark:

The original mix is created with a live, reverberant feel, more typical of what you would hear in the cheap seats, while the new mix gives you a front row seat, with good ambient effects in the surrounds, and solid dimensionality in the front stage.

One of the most satisfying elements of The Grateful Dead movie are the stories within the story. “Characters” that appear earlier in the film, like one audience member reciting a poem about the Dead in the cavernous Winterland halls, is later seen dancing on stage. Or one guy who claims to be doing work on Bob Weir’s house and is surprised to find his name NOT on the guest list, later gets in and is seen, shirt unbuttoned, eyes closed, as he dances hypnotized to the spacey rhythm’s of one of the Dead’s more exploratory jams. It should be noted here that this was a period in time when the stage itself was as alive as the audience; friends, family, fans, men and women twirling, young children dancing, and the band itself playing their hearts out, part of something larger. But this particular element of the scene was nearing an end. Audiences would start to change as the culture around the band shifted. Soon, the stage would be off-limits to most and even the front row was set back from the stage itself, as is the way now in most arenas and concert halls, separating audience from band even more. Gone are the days of lying your hands on the stage mere inches away from Jerry or Bob or Phil as they cast their musical spell. Thankfully, once the lights went down, the music itself transcended barriers and found its way to the audience which had come to be absorbed by it.

Picture 3The camerawork in the film is also extraordinary. Shot by a crew of seven including documentarian Albert Maysles (Montery Pop, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), the footage is extremely and unusually intimate. The extreme close-ups of band and audience faces draw the viewer in in a way most concert films never allow. Extreme tight shots of Garcia’s fingers at work reveal a level of improvisational intimacy that speaks directly to the music and its relationship to both band and audience. Drummer Bill Kreuztman’s commentary on how drumming, in its best moments, is more akin to dancing than anything else, is vividly on display as the camera moves in close, capturing the intimate nature and relationships of these men and women to the music they’re playing and the instruments that appear more extensions of their bodies than manufactured pieces of equipment.

As for the audience, the camera lovingly follows the various incarnations and interpretations of the music as witnessed and experienced through the unique body language of each participant. It is the very essence of the word intimate. This part of the experience dominates the second half of the film which, as the journey must do, finally takes the viewer deep into the most personal recesses of the music itself. Experimental and frightening, beautiful and sombre, The Grateful Dead movie now asks its audience to submerse themselves ever deeper. Spacey and jazzy and delicate all at the same time, the music and images travel to a place outside of time and space. For the average movie-goer or someone who simply does not like the music of the Grateful Picture 6Dead, this portion of the film may seem a bore. But for those with a true sense of exploration, this is both the most challenging and most rewarding part of the film. It is, for me, my favorite segment. Here is where I get to live and relive the experience of disappearing into the music itself, of giving myself over to its pull and allowing my mind and body to embrace something primal within, that place where consciousness and movement converge into one to create an almost meditative state that speaks directly to the soul. It is, ultimately, the innate power of the Grateful Dead and the creative energy and flow they so often tapped into. And like the film itself, it’s a group experience with all participants along for the ride.

In the words of the film’s editor, Susan Crutcher:

“At that time, I was learning a great deal about music and musicianship. It’s reflective in the choices that I made, meaning how long I stayed with something and when I cut away. I was really glad that I did stay with a camera, allowing it to reveal something to us, the audience…

“Sometimes, it would be really transcendent just seeing what the seven camera people would do. Sometimes, there was this serendipitous moment where they’d all do the same thing — like they’d all go to the mirrored ball. I’m sure some of them had been dosed, but it was really beautiful. I think the camera work on the film is extraordinary…

“I wanted to represent it and all the beautiful changes in it. Like in jazz, there were these moments where we change from one tempo to another, where we change from one mood to another, and I absolutely wanted to preserve those moments because I think they are so indicatively Grateful Dead.”

Donna Jean Godchaux, Grateful Dead vocalist and the band’s only female member, put the whole film into perfect context:

“I think we always meant for it to be a document of what it was like to be at a Grateful Dead concert. I think it’s a beautiful poem to where the band was and where the fans were at that time. I think that’s the soul of the film, and I think what we were really going for.”

And for those who are considering whether or not to buy or rent the DVD, the second disc in this collection contains, among other things, 90 minutes worth of concert footage not found in the film itself. This is an extraordinary compilation of music and an amazing addition to the film. For my money, the performances contained in these 90 glorious minutes outshine anything in the film. The music is tight and the band on fire. Everything from Dark Star to The Other One is on display here. And the jam between Chinacat Sunflower and I Know You Rider may be one of the greatest moments ever captured on film of the band creating that “energy bubble”; when all the elements come together just right and the real magic happens; that intangible but gloriously real moment when all the different sounds converge and the intricacies and complexities of the music disappear into one single hair-raising vibration. It’s that seemingly elusive moment when an uncontrollable smile spreads across your face and you know, without question, that the world is, indeed, a very special place.

Here is a piece of the long and windy road that is the Grateful Dead’s Playing In The Band. It is the perfect melding of the improvisational nature of the music and the intimate nature of the film itself. Enjoy.

Addendum: The Grateful Dead Movie is now also available on Blu-ray with a stunning transfer off the original negative and lossless sound for the film itself. The second disc is not Blu-ray, but identical to the second disc in the original DVD set. 


Midnight Movies: THE GRATEFUL DEAD

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