If you missed out on being a Deadhead back in the day, in a sense, it’s never too late to start again for the first time. The Grateful Dead were so well documented both on audio and film that there are no shortage of ways to recreate the experience. Today’s version is missing some important elements of course, such as the unique surrounding community of fans that helped in combination with the music, to complete the picture, but there is plenty besides that which has been left behind for your enjoyment.
2011 brought a number of new archival releases for fans to dig into, not the least of which was the massive 72 CD box set chronicling the entire run of shows that had been recorded for the original Europe ‘72 live album. Following closely behind that release was a new DVD collection released earlier this year called All The Years Combine, a 14 DVD set from Shout! Factory which put the bulk of the Grateful Dead video releases back into print, including some material which had never been released before.
On the heels of that release, comes the individual issue of The Grateful Dead Movie on July 3rd, which has been out-of-print on DVD for a number of years. The Shout! Factory edition retains all of the original extras, of which there are many. The original film had a running time of over two hours. A second DVD adds more than three hours of extras, including 95 minutes of bonus concert footage.
To fully appreciate The Grateful Dead Movie, you have to first stop and remember that there wasn’t always a concert film or tour documentary for every single concert tour that hit the road. A film like The Grateful Dead Movie, one which screened theatrically, no less, was more of a rarity.
Mixing concert footage with incidental scenes both on and off-stage, The Grateful Dead Movie paints a fairly complete picture of what life on the road with the Grateful Dead might have been like in 1974. It’s an interesting trip that shifts seamlessly from the band’s perspective in one moment to the vantage point of the crowd in the next, set farther back and additional angles put you in the crowd, surrounded by nothing but people, as if you are there dancing and having a good time, just like they were.
It’s a relatively unvarnished view of the experience as well. During soundcheck, a somewhat tense discussion of the dress code of one particular crew member wearing a Hells Angels jacket occurs, with those concerned noting that they want to avoid anybody wearing colors and items that might spark unwanted violence, mentioning specifically the issues that they’ve had with Angels in the past. The crew member smiles and says that “if Bill Graham thinks I’m that violent, maybe I just oughta knock him out and leave.”
In another bit of footage, fans express their displeasure with the idea of a Grateful Dead movie, calling the idea "bullshit," branding their musical heroes essentially as sellouts, while hearing it advocated that they should instead view the forthcoming release as a video album, being assured that they will indeed find themselves laying out the dollars to go see the film, because they're going to want to.
The story behind the film is almost as fascinating as the film itself. The liner notes, written by former Dead publicist Dennis McNally tell the whole story. But the elements summarized briefly, reveal a film that shouldn’t have come together as perfectly as it did.
Much of the movie assembly happened in an improvisational way, appropriately in line with the style of the band’s music. Shot with seven cameras, the week spent capturing The Grateful Dead Movie was quite an experience. Nearly all of the shooters were dosed every night, while the production assistants hired to work on the film were afraid of the Hells Angels (as you can probably imagine) and capping things off, they ran out of film on the last night of the run, rescued at the 11th hour by film from director Leon Gast’s own private stash.
The theatrical release of The Grateful Dead Movie guaranteed that there would be very little profits. It was presented using DBX sound, which required crews to rig each theater to accommodate the technology.
It seems likely that for whatever money they might have lost on the project at the time, chances are very good that they’ve probably made it back (and then some) with the lavish DVD presentation of the original document.
In addition to the bonus materials, viewers can choose from several different sound mixes when they watch the film. Jerry Garcia’s original theatrical mix, which had delays so everybody in the room would hear all of the instruments at the same time, has been remixed into 5.1 surround sound. Additional 5.1 surround sound and stereo mixes are provided as well, mixed by Jeffrey Norman from the master multitrack tapes
“There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert, period. There never will be.” Those words, spoken by a fan in the film, ring especially true after watching this film, which does an amazing job of capturing The Grateful Dead on-stage and also, the perspective of being a fan of the band. While attending a Grateful Dead concert today might not be possible, The Grateful Dead Movie helps to bottle a large part of the experience for those who never had a ticket. And for those who amassed many ticket stubs, it’s a great way to look back.