In March 1973 Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, The Grateful Dead's organ-playing blues man died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. A heartbroken Jerry Garcia summed up the loss of one of the band's founding members, "We can go on calling ourselves The Grateful Dead but after Pigpen's death we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead". A year later Garcia's words took on greater significance when it was announced that the Dead were taking an indefinite hiatus. By 1974 the band was exhausted. They had survived a series of back-to-back grinding tours, but the task of truckin' the Dead's massive Wall of Sound, a 641 strong speaker cabinet from one show to another was putting an enormous drain on the band's finances. Individual band members were also eager to record their own material and with that the Dead were put on hold. The retirement would prove short lived when they reconvened in February 1975 to record the Blues for Allah album, but as preparations were made for a 5-night farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland in October (dubbed The Last One), Garcia had the idea that if the band was about to meet its end there should be definitive document and with that came The Grateful Dead Movie
Jerry Garcia was a life long cinephile. From an early age Garcia loved Horror movies and later became a devotee of European Art Cinema. Garcia had strong aspirations to become a film maker but his life was entirely devoted to his music. Garcia recruited documentarian Leon Gast to direct the film, then provisionally titled There is Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert, and what began as a straightforward visual record of the Dead's performance soon evolved into a documentary encompassing the entire Grateful Dead experience - the music, the band, the fans, the stage set-up, the road crew, and the drugs. Gast placed seven camerman (among them Albert Maysles) around the stage to fully capture every nuance of the Dead's performance across the 5-nights, with additional footage shot within the audience and in and around Winterland. Immediately after the Winterland shows Gast flew to Zaire to film the three-day music festival which preceded the Ali/Foreman fight (the footage which later became the Soul Power documentary), and Garcia took over as "editorial director" charged with the unenviable task of sculpting 125 hours of performance footage into a coherent, commercial film.
The Grateful Dead Movie, Garcia's labour of love (or Jerry's Jerk-off as Phil Lesh once described it), didn't see the light of a projector bulb for almost three years. As well as sifting through the footage in search of the best performances and the best coverage, Garcia and soundman Dan Healy pioneered a new innovative type of mixing which resulted in a perfect symbiosis of image and sound. The film's post production had put the Dead's finances in another precarious situation - when the project was first mooted in 1974, the budget was set at a modest $15,000 but by the time the film had its premiere in New York in June 1977, the film swallowed up a staggering $600,000. The film took a heavy toll on Garcia as well - "Every time I thought about something, my mind would come back to the film and I'd get depressed", and towards the completion of the film a stressed out Garcia sought refuge in heroin. Rather than distribute the film along conventional lines, the movie was booked to play special Roadshow style exhibitions in major cities, with each theatre screening the film specially fitted with an expensive sound system which could do justice to Garcia's state of the art mix. It was a grand idea but the band would never see a return on their investment in the film.
Whatever the turbulence of post production, filming of The Grateful Dead Movie saw the band on tremendous form. Perhaps the impending retirement had energized the performances and over the course of two hours, the Dead radiate a brilliance the studio albums could never quite capture. The film opens with an 8min amphetamine-fuelled animated sequence in which a skeletal Uncle Sam goes through various mind-bending adventures before the film begins proper with the band on stage performing an exuberant US Blues. The film's transitions from performance to documentary are expertly done, the band's long improvisations jams give the film the space to feature the other players in the Dead's psychedelic wonderland - the road crew are seen assembling the monstrous Wall of Sound, and there's some amusing stuff with Bill Graham. Most of the non-musical footage is reserved for the Deadheads, the band's unfailingly devotional community of fans - although the Dead don't get it all their own way, as one irate fan vents his anger at the band over the filming of the Winterland shows. Garcia of course loved this bit of impetuous whining and left him in the film - much to the fan's eternal mortification no doubt.
The Grateful Dead may well be the most documented rock band on compact disc, but precious little film footage exists of the halcyon days of the band. The Dead can be seen in a short performance bit in Richard Lester's 1968 film Petulia, and two years before the Winterland film, the band were filmed playing a show in Oregon for the feature length but unreleased Sunshine Daydream. The Dead also appear in the 2003 documentary Festival Express, which chronicles a 1970 train tour across Canada which included Jonis Joplin and The Band among others. The Grateful Dead Movie remains the definitive visual document of the band. Bathed in queasy purples and rosy pinks, the Dead have never looked better, the onstage telepathy between the band members is mesmerizing as they travel the space ways of long extended jams led by Garcia's fluid guitar lines. 1973 is seen as a crossroads in the band's long career, when the Dead left Warner Bros. to launch their own short-lived label. In retrospect the film is a farewell of sorts to classic-era Dead, the band emerged into the second half of the 70's making patchy studio albums and ditching ballrooms for stadiums. Acoustic sets figured more prominently at live shows, perhaps foreshadowed by the end credits of The Grateful Dead Movie which features a time-lapse photography sequence of the crew dismantling the Wall of Sound for the final time. It lasted just 37 shows.
In 2004 US label Monterey Video released The Grateful Dead Movie in a fantastic 2-disc special edition. Disc 1 featured the Movie, while among the extras on disc 2 were 90min of music from the Winterland shows that didn't make the final cut. Monterey's DVD went out of print in 2010 but Shout Factory re-released the same edition on Blu-Ray no less in 2011. In terms of optics, the (A-locked) Blu-Ray is not a major leap forward from the DVD - this is not a criticism of Shout Factory's transfer, The Grateful Dead Movie has always looked a little soft due to the lighting conditions of the original film. Also the 16mm blow-up to 35 gave the image a grainy look. All these imperfections are present on the Blu but if you keep your expectations in check, the 1.85 transfer is quite decent. Audio is where the Shout Factory edition really shines, the Blu features a truly stunning sound mix and far exceeds the Monterey DVD (a more detailed account of the audio options can be read here)
Disc 2 of the Shout Factory Blu-Ray edition comes as a standard def DVD. The biggest extra on the second disc are the 90mins of music that slipped the final cut, including extended jams of Uncle John's Band, The Other One, Weather Report Suite and a particularly fine version of Dark Star. Next up is over an hour's worth of documentary features - A Look Back (28min) features archive and contemporary interview footage of the band (including Bill Graham), while Making of the DVD (14min) focuses on the job of preparing the sound mix. Gary Gutierrez's memorable contribution to the film is showcased in Making of the Animation (16min). The other significant extra on the set is the very interesting, anecdote filled commentary by editors Susan Crutcher and John Nutt. The Grateful Dead Movie is also available as 2-disc DVD edition, or can bought as part of Shout Factory's mammoth 14-DVD Dead boxset All The Years Combine. A UK DVD of The Grateful Dead Movie is out now and a Blu-Ray is promised for September.