The Grateful Dead Movie

He got locked in the box of being Jerry Garcia.

This is not the movie I expected it to be. If you’re looking for the Altamont story, an in-depth analysis of the band’s keyboardists and their deaths, this flick is not for you. Actually, I’m not sure this film will satisfy anybody, even the hardest core Deadheads, because it’s mostly others telling their story of the band, and if you were ever touched, if you were a fan, you’ve got your own. Buying the albums, trading the tapes, going to the show… Each concert was different, and that’s what built the legend, much more than the passing of cassettes, it was a living breathing thing that was palpable, very different from a show today, still-influenced by MTV, with a firm setlist and production, the Dead made it up as they went along, and if you weren’t there you might miss out, but what made the band go nuclear was the hit, “Touch Of Grey,” suddenly everybody was clued in, because some things never change, it’s always about the single.

And when the band reaches the pinnacle it’s always about the money. You’re the center of an ecosystem. If you leave the road, if you break up, what are all those people gonna do for a living? And the responsibility weighs heavy. Everybody says go, from the manager to the agent to your fellow players, never mind the audience, and then you self-destruct. This is what happened to Kurt Cobain, I believe it’s what happened to Chris Cornell, and it definitely happened to Jerry Garcia.

But you don’t want to hear that. You want to put these people on a pedestal, invest them with your hopes and dreams, and the greats were never in it for that. They wanted acknowledgement, they wanted success, but they didn’t want to fulfill expectations, they wanted to experiment, they wanted to be free, like in the sixties.

If you’re watching on Amazon there are six episodes. And it becomes an endurance test. And if you’re not up for the full investment, just watch the first and the last, they’re superior. But that’s the difference between then and now, we had few options, we experienced boredom, we’d go to the Grateful Dead show and it would be one hour of greatness, one hour of trash and two hours of mediocrity, not that anybody would admit it. But at least give them credit for trying to climb that hill, achieve greatness. And this flick mirrors a Dead show, and when it’s on, it’s SPECTACULAR!

Like is said in the flick, Ronald Reagan wanted to erase the sixties. The Republicans still want to achieve this, even though it was fifty years ago. But if you were alive back then, you know the sixties were not overrated, our only regret was they didn’t continue, that we didn’t get to participate in everything, we wanted to go to the Acid Tests which we didn’t know existed until Tom Wolfe’s book, that’s what made Woodstock so big, everybody had gotten the memo, they didn’t want to be LEFT OUT!

But first there was just a germ of an idea.

You’ve got to start with economics. You could live on next to nothing. You could pursue your dream. Even I did this, spending two years skiing in Utah. No American does this anymore, they’re afraid of missing out on their career, and it costs too much to do it. And don’t criticize the ski talk, Jerry Garcia loved to SCUBA dive, and even their old road manager, Sam Cutler, says you’ve got to get away from it to survive, he even referenced snow skiing.

But, once again, you don’t want your heroes to be human.

And if you’ve met your heroes you’re sorely disappointed almost all of the time. Your image does not comport with reality. And today everybody wants the responsibility of being a star, but Garcia stopped talking, he was afraid of people hanging on his every word.

So, it’s the turn of the decade. From the fifties to the sixties. The beatniks paved the way, and the poets did too. And you became a musician not for the money but because you got the bug, you were bitten. And Garcia was and his goal was never to make commercial music, but the music in his head. And first and foremost it had to be FUN!

That’s a running theme in the film, along with Garcia’s infatuation with Frankenstein. Jerry only wants to do it if it’s fun. And he’s into the moment, not the legacy, he’s all about the now. So if you’re looking for instruction, if you’re looking for lessons, I wouldn’t start with the Dead, they were making it up as they went along. Hell, try that, but good luck surviving. You see times have changed. You can’t make it here. But Jerry, et al, did.

And they all acknowledge Jerry is the leader, the teacher, the inspiration.

And Jerry was inspired by what was going on around him and a high school student named Brigid Meier. And when she returns, 28 years later, when Jerry has Dennis McNally track her down you know all men are the same, looking back, never forgetting where they were, who they were, the women that influenced them. It’s not about hanging with the rich and famous, it’s about hanging with those who knew you when.

And that’s the essence of the picture, the Brigid Meier story.

As for the rest…

I really don’t care what Al Franken has to say about the band. Or Steve Silberman. Or even Nick Paumgarten, the most articulate of the three. Because, like I said, we all have our own stories.

And the stories are not fully fleshed out. Joe Smith has told me numerous times about telling the band to make one for him, after multiple uncommercial LPs, but somehow the band just gets divine inspiration and makes “Workingman’s Dead,” even though Joe says a lot, this is not included.

Nor is the formation of their own record company.

Nor is there emphasis on the postcards and their fan club.

And they mention European tours and going to the pyramids but you want to know more about road life, and you want to know more about relationships, Mountain Girl is only mentioned by her daughter Trixie. And I won’t say the film is a whitewash, but there’s very little negative in it, and there’s always negative in life, it’s amazing we get along at all.

So, the early footage is revelatory. As is some footage of the initial European tour. But this flick is not about facts, but feeling. And too often they miss the feeling. You get the feeling of what it was like to be in the band before it was signed, which makes the initial installment so good, and the mania of the end, when there were more people outside the stadium than in it, but the all night Fillmore shows, how “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty” blew up the band, working with Lowell George… That’s nowhere to be found. The Dead meant the most in the seventies, the eighties and nineties were a victory lap, and although they say this about the later period, they don’t go into depth about the commercial heyday of the 1970s.

So I’m disappointed.

I think most people will be disappointed. Assuming they watch it at all.

Have you got four hours to watch a Grateful Dead movie? Only the most hardcore Deadhead does, and there are not enough nuggets here to satisfy them.

Maybe the film had to be sixteen hours long.

Or there had to be a cut and uncut version.

The definitive story of the Grateful Dead has yet to be told. And isn’t that just the point? The story is continuing, it will never die, the act will probably outlive its members, which is rare these days.

Because they were in it for the music.

Until they were in it for the business and it destroyed them.

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