Perhaps more than any other band in the rock-music pantheon, the Grateful Dead were known as widely for their fan culture as for their tunes. From the early ’70s to the group’s breakup in 1995 following the death of singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia, “Deadheads” travelled in groups around the country, following the band from show to show and developing rituals ranging from the exchange of bootleg audio tapes to the refinement of chemically enhanced noodle dancing. Accordingly, The Grateful Dead Movie—a concert film that Garcia codirected with Leon Gast—features Deadheads almost as much as it features the musicians onstage. From the hyperactive guy in the front row who looks as if he understands the “Casey Jones” lyric “drivin’ that train high on cocaine” to the endless parade of lissome ladies bopping and bouncing to the delight of band members, other fans, and roadies, the Deadheads put on quite a peace-and-love show throughout The Grateful Dead Movie. Even if being jammed into close quarters with stoned hippies suffering the rigors of questionable hygiene doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, it’s interesting to watch the audience antics simply from an anthropological standpoint.
As for the loosey-goosey music flowing from the stage, that’s naturally a matter of taste. The Dead deliver energetic versions of several iconic songs (including “Casey Jones,” “Playing in the Band,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin’,” and their beloved cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”), with Garcia, Keith and Donna Godchaux, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and returning original drummer Mickey Hart winding their way through the extended improvisational jams that made the band famous.
As orchestrated by Gast and Garcia, several cameras capture the performances efficiently, and the guiding aesthetic seems to be unvarnished proficiency rather than flashy style. In other words, if the music doesn’t move you, the images won’t either. Except, perhaps, for the trippy eight-minute animated sequence that opens the movie, featuring the band’s familiar skeleton character, Uncle Sam, cavorting through landscapes including outer space, a giant pinball machine, a dirty jail cell, and fast-moving surrealistic backgrounds somewhat in the vein of the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Inconsequential interview scenes with band members are sprinkled into the movie at random intervals, but the only purely informational passage is a long montage featuring still photos depicting the first 10 years of the band’s existence.
While there’s not much in The Grateful Dead Movie to capture or hold the attention of people who aren’t already fans, it’s nonetheless valuable to have a vintage document celebrating the iconic ensemble in their prime. And, in many significant ways, the movie is as easygoing and freewheeling as the storied concert experience it depicts.
The Grateful Dead Movie: FUNKY