What I'm really watching: The Grateful Dead movie

You know the old Twilight Zone episode, when Burgess Meredith plays a bibliophile survives an H-bomb attack only to shatter his glasses? Well, my current situation is hardly that dire – even living so worryingly close to New York City’s Covid-19 epicentre, Elmhurst hospital. But there is considerable irony that my social calendar has been erased just as my ability to concentrate for anything longer than a haiku is shot.

I have access to as much high-investment/high-reward cinema as I could ever stream. But let’s be real: it ain’t happening. The link to the recent Lav Diaz film shall remain unclicked, as will the one for An Elephant Sitting Still. Now isn’t the time to finally chomp into Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and it’s definitely unwise to revisit Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, as I was planning to do just a few weeks ago. What has been filling the hours, in reality, has been concert footage from jam bands.

Current acts such as the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Goose, Spafford, Umphrey’s McGee, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Phish (yeah, yeah, I know, these names) put some of their performances on YouTube, where you can get lost in their labyrinthine jams and endless grooves. There’s also no shortage of material from classic artists such as the Allman Brothers Band, Frank Zappa (with or without the Mothers of Invention), Pink Floyd, King Crimson (these last two may not technically be jam bands, but I don’t want to fight right now), classic Phish and, of course, the almighty Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia performing in 1977.
Crystalline solos ... The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia performing in 1977. Photograph: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

At some point between getting lost in the candy-coloured haze of their 1968 Columbia University free concert, the furious rhythms of Fire on the Mountain from the 1978 gig at the Giza pyramids and Jerry Garcia’s absolutely gorgeous singing and guitar playing from the Philadelphia 89 Standing on the Moon, I was reminded of an old friend from my pre-internet younger days, The Grateful Dead movie.

I may still have a VHS dub of it somewhere, but an HD version lives on Amazon Prime in the US. I’ve watched all 132 minutes of it twice this week, and to call it a balm is an understatement. I know I must have looked ridiculous, but I cheered, laughed, sang along and, yes, did what could generously be called interpretative dance right there in my living room. (Try to listen to Sugar Magnolia without shaking your hips a little bit – it’s very hard to do.)

Before The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense came The Grateful Dead movie. But it came after Woodstock, and it’s to that film this documentary owes a lot. Shot in October 1974 and released in June 1977, most of The Grateful Dead movie’s running time is devoted to the music – a giddy Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad, a spaced-out Playing in the Band and a high-volume Casey Jones being some of the highlights. But as any freak’ll tell ya, much of the appeal of the Grateful Dead was the travelling circus. As with Woodstock, the best moments are the snapshots of the fans.

There are the Deadheads who line up outside San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, smoking marijuana out of a beer can. There’s a guy freestyling poetry about Garcia’s guitar playing. There are the women in flowing dresses swirling around to the beat, the shirtless dudes who sing along to each word and there are the many, many fans captured in ecstatic amber, some of them just being, man.

The Grateful Dead was a band of many eras. There was the early acid-test years in Haight-Ashbury, the 77-78 “disco Dead” period (which I adore) and a spell of glassy, synthesiser-enhanced trips in the early 1990s. As luck would have it, The Grateful Dead movie captures the band during a particular zenith. They had just finished recording From the Mars Hotel but had yet to explore the prog/funk of Blues for Allah. They were in the peak of what I like to call their dirtbag psychedelia mode, when songs such as Truckin’ and loose affiliation with biker gangs lent them a nasty edge of outlaw Americana.

And even if you hate the music you can’t help but love this documentary footage. The swarms of shimmying, stinking hippies is just good cinema. There are dancers who somehow make their way to the stage (including some children?) plus a guy shooting fireballs from time to time. It’s a bit of a free-for-all, and that’s before we head to the concession stand selling hot dogs for a mere 60 cents. (That’s about $3 in today’s money.)

The Grateful Dead are no more, but many bands chasing their spirit are still out there. And the minute this pandemic is over, I’m going to every show I can.