"They had a musical friendship. They played music, they talked about music, listened to music. That was it."
Grateful Dawg is a warm valentine to a special union of friendship and music. Anyone who sits around with an acoustic guitar singing songs with their friends will enjoy this infectious look into the way people relate to each other through music. It also serves as a fitting tribute to the late Garcia and lesser-known Grisman, showing fans and non-fans alike more of what was behind these two "beards of a feather."
Facts of the Case
Grateful Dawg tells the story of the band created by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Most people know Garcia as the deceased frontman of the Grateful Dead, though too many also think of him as the guy who saved the day in Half Baked. What people who see him as a hippie cartoon miss is Garcia's rich background in American roots music. He grew up picking banjo in the San Francisco Bay Area, playing Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers songs, and he took that sensibility with him into his later projects. Much of the Dead's material was essentially bluegrass with a full band arrangement and a lot of Kool-Aid. This early background is the focus of Grateful Dawg, as Garcia revisits the music that first inspired him, along with longtime friend and collaborator Grisman.
Grisman is known to Grateful Dead fans for performing mandolin on songs like "Ripple" and "Friend of the Devil" (these recordings, we learn in the supplemental material, were also the source of a royalty dispute which caused a multiyear rift between the two men) as well as his stints with Garcia in their bluegrass band, Old and in the Way. Grisman has a career in his own right as one of the only mandolin players who can sell out theaters, and he and Garcia seem separated at birth. Here they're both shaggy, tubby, graying, stubborn old coots who share an unbridled fascination with the music from the earliest days of their country, and discussions about this common thread figure prominently in Grateful Dawg.
The film is a series of interviews interwoven with live performances that include some of the last sights of Garcia before he died. It has a feel as loose as the performers it centers on. It's directed by Gillian Grisman, David's daughter, with affectionate (if occasionally soggy) warmth. An incisive, gritty approach certainly wasn't needed, but as the film goes on you sometimes wish for less romantic visions of these men. The commentary track, by David and Gillian, gives more of a glimpse into the less romantic qualities of Garcia. As she explains in one of the deleted scenes, the filming began as a way to kill time. She amassed so much good footage of shows, rehearsals, and recording sessions that she decided to flesh it out into a full length documentary. There are interviews with musicians from Old and in the Way and Grateful Dawg, as well as various family members. Live songs are interspersed throughout, and thankfully, David insisted Gillian use full-song takes instead of editing them into sequences. The originals and covers range stylistically from reggae to bluegrass to old sea chanteys, and Garcia and Grisman give them a tangible richness. These guys truly love this music, and it shows.
The movie is presented in full screen, or so it says on the box. However, almost all of the movie appears in quasi-widescreen that looks similar to 1.85:1, though it seems more shallow. I thought it was mislabeled, but there were a couple of parts where it does appear to drop into full screen. Perhaps this is some kind of a hippie Easter egg trick to give people flashbacks. That, or I'm merely confused, which is entirely likely. But for all intents and purposes, this film appears in widescreen. The image is good, except for some file footage that's understandably worn. Most is shot on video, giving it a slight infomercial feel, but it's not distracting. The live footage is particularly nice, with good blacks and sparse, tasteful stage lighting, setting a proper mellow mood. The musical interludes are augmented with imagery from the songs, and though it may sound like a lame lava lamp, the fades of old whaling ships actually fit the songs well. Gillian claims on her commentary that Jerry had a hand in editing out the cheese from these montages from beyond.
The sound is presented in English 5.1, and it's fantastic in the music sections. The Grateful Dead and their cohorts were notorious sticklers for sound quality, and their official releases have always had superior sound quality to most live releases. Grateful Dawg is no exception, and the performances are benefited by the expanded capabilities of 5.1. While Garcia and Grisman's instruments are wisely kept stable in the mix, the light percussion and bass that float under the jams breathes throughout. Sitting there in the dark with the sound way up, I needed only to spill a drink on my shirt and light some cigarettes to feel like I was there at the Sweetwater club watching this event live.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a slight sense of hyperbole throughout the film, particularly on the commentary track. The film is best when it displays the men as ordinary, merely lovers of music, but occasionally it stresses that Garcia was an icon more than it needs to. This seems like a way to remind the viewer that what they're seeing is inside stuff. This is a small complaint though, and admittedly the footage is pretty extraordinary and tough not to boast about.
While I'm admittedly simply a fan of this music, this movie exceeded my expectations by serving as a true testament to any interest worth laboring over. It makes you want to pursue something with the heartfelt enthusiasm these two men did, no matter if it's learning advanced chemistry or making wind chimes. It's inspiring to see such an affection caught on film, and it stands near the top of the many Dead-related documentaries. If you like this music, you're in for a double treat, because the band has never been seen or heard so clearly before.
Despite the shaggy, unkempt appearance and happy eyes of the defendant, the court rules that Grateful Dawg be set free.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by David Grisman and Director Gillian Grisman
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