Judge Adam Arseneau will steal your face right off your head.
With a trademark mix of eclectic mix of blues, folk, rock, and psychedelic, non-sequitur lyrics and endless jamming, the Grateful Dead are both synonymous and inseparable from their subculture of big outdoor festivals, camping, touring around the country in a VW van, long hair, dancing, and…recreational substances. At least, I heard some guy did them once at a Dead show.
Newly released on Blu-ray, The Grateful Dead Movie shows off its high-definition chops with sumptuous audio and special features galore.
Facts of the Case
Filmed at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, The Grateful Dead Movie represents a band at their creative peak: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Breutzmann, Donna Godchaux, Keith Godchaux, and Mickey Hart. Burned out from endless touring, creatively spent and ready to take an extended hiatus, the band set out to make a proper film recording for posterity. Smart move on their part, as things were never quite the same for the Dead from this point onward. Lineup changes, low-charting records, and fatalities would keep the band from reaching former levels success. But in October 1974, the band was on top of the world…and they had the sound system to prove it.
• "U.S. Blues"
Unique in the world of concert films, The Grateful Dead Movie is more a meditation on all things Dead than a simple recording of the band in front of an audience. A heady mix of animation, concert footage and behind-the-scenes interviews with crew and fans alike, the film celebrates the band as a cultural phenomenon: a living, breathing subculture unique in the world of music where the fans are given equal billing with the band. Interspaced into the set are dancing, singing, and caravans of crew travelling in advance to set up the band's sound system. We see fans lined up outside, looking for "a miracle," as Deadheads call it—an elusive ticket to a sold-out Grateful Dead show.
A Deadhead I'm not, but anything with ears can appreciate just how good this band is in front of an audience. Their talent and musicianship is second to none. The Grateful Dead Movie does a superb job of blending the audience and the band into a single experience. It's hard not to get into it when you see hundreds of people dancing and grinning like idiots. The flipside to the coin, of course, is that the film cuts away to interviews and other non-musical activities, often in the middle of songs. It breaks the unspoken rule of concert films, which prioritizes the performance before all else, but does so with such gleeful abandon that The Grateful Dead Movie feels more like a documentary than a concert film. It is a cinematic experience that more accurately represents what a Dead show is really like than any simple recording could.
Speaking of recording, if you're a music gear geek (and most people who pick up a guitar or bass in their lives eventually become one), the Dead's legendary Wall of Sound is deserving of its own separate article. After years of shoddy sound systems and inconsistent sound from location to location, legendary audio engineer Owsley "Bear" Stanley created a massive sound system and stage that towered into the sky; a literal wall of sound. It took days to set it up in advance of a Dead show. It moved from city to city in gigantic truck caravans. It was powerful enough to blast sound for half a mile, distortion-free. It was so loud that it acted as the band's monitor system, letting the band hear everything the audience was hearing. Special dual condenser microphones had to be used for vocals, to cancel out the massive feedback a normal microphone would produce. It was innovation and idiocy in equal measures; a surprisingly high-tech execution of a basic, brutish premise: just cranking up the volume until something gives. The cacophony and chaos of the Wall of Sound eventually led to its demise, as it was simply too expensive to cart around, but its reputation in music lives on in infamy.
Newly released on Blu-ray, The Grateful Dead Movie handles its aged source material impressively. Transferred from 16mm to 35mm, then cropped into 1.78:1 in 1080p, the transfer is surprisingly clean and sharp, considering. Grain is prevalent, but not distracting; it matches the natural and organic feel of the film. Colors are saturated, with heavy earth tones. Detail is strong; nothing like modern-day detail, mind you, but certainly good considering the source material. Some print damage is noticeable, unfortunately, but it never deters the experience. Black levels could use a bit of work, but again, you need to set your expectations reasonable.
Audio is where this set shines, if in a confusing manner. We get three mixes: a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation of the original theatrical audio mix, a DTS 5.1 audio mix and a PCM 2.0 stereo mix, both from the master multi-track tapes. Both surround tracks are totally separate animals, and interesting enough, both shine in different ways. I found myself switching back and forth, experimenting on a song-by-song basis, and preferring each in equal measures. One would expect the DTS-HD Master Audio track to be the star of the show, but it's not that clear cut. Based on the original multichannel theatrical mix, the DTS-HD track is faithfully authentic, to a fault: thin bass, slightly tinny vocals, and subtle use of rear channels. It sounds exactly like it did the day it was released. The audio isn't perfect, but this is largely due to technical issues with the massive sound system than with the DVD itself. The peculiar phased condenser microphones were a clever bit of kit for their day, but had a tendency to make the vocals sound thin and muffled, unless the band were practically swallowing them in their mouths when they sang. Touring keyboardist Ned Lagin, who appears for a few of the songs, lacked a dedicated input into the system and is almost inaudible in the mix.
On the other hand, the DTS 5.1 Surround mix is a new and modern take on the source material, and radically changes the tone of the concert. Flat vocals become crisp and resonant. Dimly mixed instruments suddenly appear in the foreground. Bass response kicks up. The crowd feels more energetic, more active. It sounds better on paper, but it also sounds a bit too artificial at times; too much manipulation and tweaking, lacking the oddly appealing inconsistencies of the original track. Simply put, some tracks just sound better the old-fashioned way, and some sound better the new way. Some experimentation will be required to find the mix that feels best for your ears, and your stereo system. The PCM track is nearly identical to the DTS 5.1 remix, minus a few speakers.
Extras are where this disc shines. The feature disc contains a full-length commentary track with supervising editor Susan Crutcher, film editor John Nutt and DVD producer Frank Zamacona. A second Blu-ray disc contains a solid three hours of supplements, including 95 minutes of bonus concert footage transferred from the original 16mm film negatives ("Uncle John's Band," "Sugaree," "The Other One," "Spanish Jam," "Mind Left Body Jam," "The Other One," "Scarlet Begonias," "China Cat Sunflower," "I Know You Rider," "Dark Star," "Weather Report Suite") with two distinct audio tracks—Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, both mixed from the master multi-track tapes, including subtitles. Three making-of documentaries ("Looking Back," "Making of the Animated Sequence," "Making of the DVD") and a television commercial for Mars Hotel from 1974 are included. To round it out, we get multi-camera and multi-track audio demonstrations and over 200 photographs of production notes, photos, film stills, and other historical items. What more could you ask for?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You know, I really was digging the first ten minutes of the film. It really spoke to me, man. Then all of a sudden, these guys showed up with instruments and started playing? What's up with that?
You don't need to be a Deadhead to appreciate The Grateful Dead Movie (Blu-ray), a perfectly preserved and wonderful time capsule of music and culture. This is a top-notch treatment.
Not guilty, man.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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