The Grateful Dead Movie

When the late, great Robert Hunter wrote the Grateful Dead lyric “Such a long long time to be gone, and a moment to be there” he was probably describing life and death, but he could have been predicting the fact it took Jerry Garcia more than two years to edit a two-hour movie.

Never a band to make things easy for themselves, the Dead culled this concert movie from a 1974 farewell run of five shows at Winterland (a converted ice skating rink in San Francisco; see also The Last Waltz), leaving Garcia with hundreds of hours of footage. That any of it was usable is something of a miracle considering the camera operators were dosed with LSD by mischievous Grateful Dead crewmen who secreted acid in coffee urns, injected it into fruit and put it at the bottom of buckets full of beer bottles for anyone who stuck their arm in.

Garcia emerged in 1977 with a complete deconstruction of a Grateful Dead show that pulls the whole thing apart like one of the Dead’s exploratory improvisations, cutting between the performances (and pyrotechnics courtesy of a guy with a cigarette hanging from his mouth), the Deadheads (dancing in the hall and tripping in the aisles) and innovative psychedelic animations. The song selection covers the Dead’s eccentric range of styles, including cosmic country (Playing in the Band), hippy jazz (Eyes of the World) and apocalyptic ballads (Morning Dew), all blasted out of the infamous Wall of Sound system too loudly for the poor hot dog vendor.

Garcia was apparently fascinated by seeing footage of the Deadheads (“It gave me a greater sense of the unique value of the Grateful Dead”), who we see tattooing each other in the queue and extolling the virtues of the band: “They’re the best… besides Jesus.” I don’t recall him filling out 5 nights at a converted ice rink. These moments have a Trekkies quality of highlighting the fans’ feverish devotion: two guys get into an argument about the value of the film they’re in, while another pleads with security to let him in since he’s “doing some electrical work at Bob Weir‘s house”; usually enough to get you into the band itself.

As the Wall of Sound is retired (and forced their hiatus in the first place through its unsustainability), second drummer Mickey Hart is brought back into the fold, though drummer Bill Kreutzmann seems to be doing just fine without him. The whole band is on great form and in good spirits, and you can feel the unique energy between and among the Dead and the Heads. We also glimpse the “Octopus” backstage, not a real octopus (although I wouldn’t put it past them) but a multi-hose nitrous oxide tank, and Winterland owner Bill Graham pouring wine: “Red, white or green?”

This all-encompassing, all-access concert movie might just be Garcia’s masterpiece, and with the exception of the 1969 album Live/Dead, maybe the most representative document of a Grateful Dead concert. There really is nothing like it.

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