[8 November 2011]
When the Grateful Dead rolled into San Francisco in October 1974 the group had reached a crisis. Having built a monstrous sound system, The Wall of Sound System, that cost more in manpower and energy than the organization could truly afford, a hiatus, which would allowed for crew members to seek other employment and for the band to get back on its feet financially, was in order. During the quintet of gigs filmed for this movie, at San Francisco’s Winterland, there was the suspicion/fear that these gigs might be the group’s last.
The Blu-Ray release of the 1977 feature The Grateful Dead Movie is a welcome addition to this widely documented band. With improved sound and a clearer image. the viewer gets a stronger sense of the full majesty of musicians staring into the face of fear in an hour of darkness. It’s also one of the more coherent rock pictures from the era. There are no unnecessary fantasy sequences (The Song Remains The Same) or bizarre backstage episodes (Baby Snakes). Instead, we get a pretty good performance film with glimpses of the crew and the Deadheads who have made the pilgrimage to Winterland.
The opening animation sequence has become the stuff of legend and rightfully so. It looks as trippy, vibrant, and original today as it must have back then and it lasts just long enough to properly build anticipation for the actual performance footage. And the performance footage? It’s the Dead in fine form. Garcia was doing some of the best lead guitar work of his career during this era and his solos and lines consistently enhance each of the tracks. (Garcia is one of those lead players whose failures sound remarkably like unqualified success, but he doesn’t fail here.)
Keyboardist Keith Godchaux and vocalist wife Donna had not yet worn out their welcome in the group (by 1978 their performances would be increasingly hard to take and one of the more divisive elements for GD fans); drummer Bill Kruetzmann was, by late ’74, accustomed to flying without his drum partner Mickey Hart who had been in a self-imposed exile since early 1971, and the sound of a one-drummer Dead has its charms. (Hart emerged from sidelines at the end of this San Francisco run to take his rightful place behind the drum throne, where he remained for the duration of the band.)
What the film also captures is the personalities of the band members. Those who have long been baffled/puzzled by vociferous praise for bassist Phil Lesh can see why. Lesh, as a performer and personality, is larger than life, entertaining, Technicolor personified. Garcia is remarkably understated, Kruetzmann alternately boyish and avuncular, Weir is a true one-of-a-kind.
A second disc (in DVD format) features more than 95 minutes of bonus concert footage, including “I Know You Rider”, “China Cat Sunflower” and “Sugaree”. A multitude of other options, including a retrospective short, an inside look at the animation sequence, and multicamera and multitrack audio demonstrations, round out the package. The Blu-Ray also offers feature-length commentary with supervising editor Susan Crutcher and film editor John Nutt.
For those of us who never had the chance to see the Dead in the concert setting, this is a good substitute, for those who did, this is a great reminder of the group’s long and impressive run.