Are there any more devoted fans than Deadheads? For decades, we heard the urban legends of their transient, tagalong devotion, their tie-dyed, get in the mini-bus venue to venue vaga-bonding. As their favorite force of nature, the Grateful Dead grew from Americana revivalists to the last lingering vestige of the psychedelic '60s. They also became a well oiled - and well loved - machine, manufacturing concerts and the accompanying cash is record amounts. With a festival like atmosphere and jam band bravado, their tours were tantamount to revivals, places where non-religious revelation could comingle with all manner of alternative realities and recreational pharmaceuticals. When founder Jerry Garcia died, it looked like the Dead would end forever. Granted, while not part of the live experience enterprise anymore, the influence of the group can be felt throughout the rest of the music business. For those who've always wondered what it was about the Grateful Dead that fostered such a mystique, we have the long lost documentary about the band. Made back in the mid '70s, The Grateful Dead Movie highlights everything that made the actual performers special, and the varying elements that made the attached tribe so intriguing.
In the early '70s, the Grateful Dead had an idea. They wanted their live shows to sound as lush and as complex as their recorded material. Sadly, the standard stage set up just wasn't providing such an output. So the group coughed up huge sums of money and came up with a multichannel monster dubbed "The Wall of Sound." Almost impossible to reproduce from venue to venue and expensive as Hell to tote around, it would become one of the band's memorable follies. In order to document its effects, the group agreed to a concert movie. As part of a five night homecoming happening at the Winterland Ballroom in their native San Francisco, the Dead delivered remarkable sets of material, showcasing what a lifetime spent honing one's chops could actually produce. This version of the combo consisted of Garcia (guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (guitar, vocals), a bearded Phil Lesh (bass), Bill Kreutzmann (drums) with an appearance from Mickey Hart (second drummer). We also have Keith Godchaux on keyboards and Donna Godchaux on backing vocals.
The song list on this disc includes, in alphabetical order, the following: "Casey Jones," "Eyes of the World," "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "He's Gone Jam," "Johnny B. Goode," "Morning Dew," "One More Saturday Night," "Playing in the Band," "Stella Blue," "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'," and "U.S. Blues." In between, co-director Leon Gast gets some rare backstage footage, as well as images of the road crew working overtime with the persnickety Wall of Sound. There is also a great opening animation bit (straight out of a drug-induced, Dead-inspired hallucination) and a lot of fan interviews. In fact, it's safe to say that The Grateful Dead Movie is as much about the Deadheads and their community as it is the musicians who fuel their fires.
As trippy time capsules go, The Grateful Dead Movie is an eye - and brain - opener. Few outside of American Rose nation had access to this level of intimacy. For many, a Dead concert was nothing more than a hippy happening, a chance for those still locked in the latter parts of the Summer of Love to recapture their pot and LSD fueled glory. Indeed, for those who attended, it was a chance to tune in, trip out, and dance like a fool. For others, it was and remains all about the performance. Toward the beginning of the show, as the band is just beginning to work their magic, one front row audience member stands shirtless, in a pair of ratty overalls, absolutely mesmerized, the smile on his face a clear combination of what he is hearing and the effect it (and any other item he may have happened to ingest) is having on him internally. It's a registering of pure bliss that is almost infectious - and a perfect illustration of this movie's limited appeal. No one will instantly become a Deadhead after watching this. Appreciation of a band this epic requires more than a fleeting familiarity. What it will do, however, is open up a window to a world few experienced and explain how such a situation came about.
In fact, the best aspect of this film is not the music - no matter how accomplished and friendly it is. No, the real revelation is the varying personalities who call the Dead their own. We see people arguing over the use of cameras (which block the experience for some and take up space onstage for others). We see non-ticket holders trying to sneak in and desperate arrivals hoping to score some seats via scalping. We hear the typical travel itineraries, the distances and hardships overcome in order to be near their favorite band again. We also get a bit of the negative side to such devotion, a possessiveness that threatens to turn one particular conversation into a clash. It's intriguing stuff, especially when you consider that later version of the Dead experience were like massive "Kum-ba-ya" campfire sing-alongs. Again, one of the inherent values of something like this is the whole 'window into another world' ideal. Since most of us will never become part of such a traveling tribe, hearing them speak -and shout - on their own behalf is illuminating. It turns The Grateful Dead Movie into something more than just a souvenir of a specific series of shows.
Still, it's the music that matters and the band is in rare form. Garcia, given over to long improvisational stretches on the six strings, is his aging, genial self. He comes off as someone without an angry or negative bone in his body. Weir is the rocker, and when he slings his axe off his shoulder and starts riffing, the Dead find their form. Lesh and Kreutzmann are a great rhythm section, inventive without going off on tangents, and the Godchauxes do a great job of accessorizing. There are a few puzzling moments - like who exactly is the peasant bloused babe whose doing an imitation of a whirling dervish off to the side? Similarly, local promotion god Bill Graham is there, but he seems to want to play troublemaker more than entertainer. Thinking of the Dead toward the end, a multimillion dollar corporate conundrum as grassroots group hug, makes the backstage issues (Garcia can't find a glass of water) and the archival footage from Haight Ashbury all the more meaningful. The Grateful Dead Movie is the band beginning its journey toward rock n roll aristocracy. You can see the starting phases...and the image is intriguing, to say the least.
First off - this is a 16mm film blown up to 35mm. Secondly, movies weren't made with preservation in mind back in 1974, so a few age spots and flaws are to be expected. With this in mind, Shout! Factory has opted to take the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and crop it a bit to 1.78:1, the better to avoid some of the 16 to 35 issues. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks best when the opening animation arrives. It's color-soaked saturation almost vibrates off the screen. As for the concert visuals, there is lots of grain (especially as the venue grows dark) and frequent scratches and surface dirt, and no matter how hard it tries, a movie made in so long ago can never have a pure high definition feel. Still, the picture looks pretty darn good, and one believes that those who've long for a copy of this concert won't care a great deal about the lack of reference quality visual specs.
As you would expect from any concert film release, The Grateful Dead Movie has three distinct aural options, and all are revelatory in their mix dynamics. As he would throughout the entire process, Garcia struggled to bring the Wall of Sound to a mid-'70s movie experience. His original 5.1 track, given the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio polish, is present and it's very good. The vocals are not that sharp, but the rest offers decent spatial separation. The newer remasters, however, offered in both lossless DTS-HD 5.1 and standard PCM stereo are different - and almost definitive. They give more balance to the onstage instrumentation, keep the speakers in check with various sonic shifts, and clean up a few missed opportunities. Taken from the original 16 track recording and given the 2011 high tech treatment, these options should make Deadhead nation very happy indeed.
Now, here is what fans will really foam over. The Blu-ray release of The Grateful Dead Movie from Shout! Factory comes in a two disc release that really fleshes out the film's need for added content. Disc 1, containing the actual feature, offers up an intriguing audio commentary with supervising editor Susan Crutcher, film editor John Nutt, and special features producer Frank Zamacona. Beginning with the well known fact that Jerry Garcia obsessed on everything about this release (the editorial process took more than two and a half years!) and going through the various ups and downs of the production, it's a very insightful overview. Disc 2 is for extras only - and there are a lot. First, we get seven bonus songs not included in the film. They are not given a lossless make-over, however. For those who are curious, they include "Uncle John's Band," "Sugaree," "The Other One," "Scarlett Begonias," "China Cat Sunflower/I Know Your Rider," "Dark Star," and "Weather Report Suite." Next up is a retrospective on the film, featuring many of the remaining members of the Dead. There is also an overview on the animation by creator Gary Gutierrez, a look at the Mars Hotel album, a photo gallery, a DVD Making-of, and a look at how the Wall of Sound's audio was processed for release here. Then there is an enclosed booklet with liner notes and photos. For the Deadhead or the format purist, it's a ripe collection of complements.
For anyone growing up in the '60s through '80s, the Grateful Dead were a dividing line. Those who loved the band lamented the lack of perspective by those who did not, while haters harkened back to the arrested adolescent vibe coming off many longtime fans. Somewhere in the middle of this muddle comes The Grateful Dead Movie, a clear case for both points of view. On the one hand, the reasons behind such devotion are fairly obvious. The reason so many stayed separated from same is also evident. From the music to those who marveling in it, the Dead are an acquired taste. Still, you can't deny the impact of seeing them all in their element. This makes the Blu-ray release of The Grateful Dead Movie a Highly Recommended experience. You may not understand the fanaticism, but the proof is here inside all the well played pudding.