As someone who grew up during a period of time when popular music was overrun by bubblegum boy bands, jailbait pop stars, and dime-a-dozen "mall punk" acts, there are some unfortunate musical realities that I must accept. On the top of the list, is the fact that there are many classic bands that I will simply never have a chance to see live. Sure, some 70s (and even 60s) rock legends are still prancing around on stage to some degree, but it's safe to say that they're no longer at their peak, and many have had to ultimately call it quits due to untimely deaths. One such case includes jam-rock pioneers the Grateful Dead, who consistently toured throughout their thirty year existence until founding member Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995. While I will sadly never get to see the band play live, after watching 'The Grateful Dead Movie' I certainly feel like I have. An intimate production full of fantastic performances and psychedelic visual touches, the film places just as much emphasis on the Deadhead fans in the audience as it does the band on stage, creating a unique and all encompassing rock concert experience.
Filmed over five nights in October 1974 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the show features the band during one of its creative highs (no pun intended). The lineup is made up of singer/lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, singer/guitarist Bob Weir, bass guitarist Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, singer Donna Godchaux, keyboard player Keith Godchaux, and drummer Mickey Hart. Full of an assortment of hits from several of their albums up until that point (including the seminal "American Beauty") the setlist features tracks like "U.S. Blues," "One More Saturday Night," "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Truckin'," "Eyes of the World," "Sugar Magnolia," "Playing in the Band," "Stella Blue," "Casey Jones," "He's Gone Jam," "Morning Dew," and a rousing rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" that would make even Marty McFly proud.
The movie starts off with a trippy animation fueled by Grateful Dead iconography and satirically skewed Americana, as a skeleton Uncle Sam journeys through a drug skewed world of chance and uncertain fate. Experimental and wonderfully psychedelic, the cartoon perfectly sets the stage for the live action experience that will soon commence, leading straight into the band's first performance. The music itself is fantastic, and the group brings a laid-back, effortless quality to their performance, with long, improvisational riffs and great stage presence. With about seven cameras shooting at any one time, we cut from a variety of interesting angles, giving a multifaceted look at the show. Just about every vantage point is accounted for, with on-stage close-ups of Garcia and company, wide shots of the stage, and intimate POVs with the audience. The band is known for its innovative mixture of various genres, including hard rock, country, folk, blues, jazz, and bluegrass leading to an eclectic and distinct sound. Though they can get about as loud as any of their contemporary peers, the reality is that the majority of their songs are actually very mellow, with a tender, melodic quality. As so astutely pointed out in the included commentary, at its core, this is gentle music being played by gentle people, and the aura of love and community that the group engenders is palpable, and at times, quite beautiful. Of course, the rampant drug use might also have something to do with it.
In between and during certain performances the film cuts to backstage footage of the crew setting up the very complicated audio rigs and equipment, as well as a few brief interviews with some of the band members. While these are all interesting breaks from the music, outside of the group, the real emphasis is placed on the fans themselves. Lots of documentary footage is dedicated to watching young Deadheads waiting in line as they hope to snag tickets, or following them as they desperately try to finagle their way into sold-out shows. Hearing from the fans and briefly focusing on some of their personal journeys during the show adds a new level to the proceedings that enhances the true-to-life concert feel. Tons of footage is shot within the audience itself, showcasing Deadheads in their natural habitat, doing what they do best -- dancing, dancing, dancing. They dance together. They dance apart. They dance in line, in the concession stands, on stage, and in the crowd, when the music is playing and when it's not. They dance and dance and dance, to the very drum beat of the universe, like gyrating messengers of truth and love, like acolytes of rock. They dance with their eyes closed and arms swaying, moving to an unknown, primal rhythm. They dance… like they're high out of their minds.
With exceptional music, rousing, almost hypnotic performances, and an intimate look into Deadhead culture, 'The Grateful Dead Movie' provides a unique and multi-faceted concert experience. Far from a mere filmed show, the movie provides a real, palpable taste of what it must have been like to see the band live. Though I will technically never have that privilege, this seems to be a surprisingly close approximation. Well, sort of anyway, minus all the pot smoke and acid trips. Big Deadheads and music enthusiasts in general should be very pleased with the film, and younger fans like myself should relish the chance to get a small sense of what it must have been like during those five magical nights in 1974.
"Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it's been." - Grateful Dead, Truckin'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout Factory presents 'The Grateful Dead Movie' in a two disc set. The film and commentary are included on a BD-50 disc and all of the additional special features are included on a DVD, which both come packaged together in a standard case inside a cardboard slipcase. After some warnings and logos, the disc transitions to a standard navigation menu. A great twenty three page booklet is also included with some information on the concert written by Dennis McNally (a former publicist for the band), as well as details on the audio mix and video transfer process.
The movie is presented in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio (slightly cropped from the original 1.85:1 ratio to hide some flaws caused by the 16mm print's blowup to 35mm). Free of any unnecessary digital tinkering, this is a solid but innately inconsistent video presentation.
The print is in OK shape but there are occasional specks, scratches, vertical lines, and other signs of mild damage. Moderate to heavy grain is visible throughout and the movie does have a rough quality to it (as is expected from its 16mm roots). The opening animation offers the film's most impressive visuals, and features some fantastic colors and detail, showcasing all of the psychedelic imagery with dizzying flair. The actual concert and documentary footage look decent, with occasionally pleasing clarity, though many shots do appear soft and coarse. The show's lighting design is great, washing the stage with blue, purple, and magenta hues that pop strongly off the screen. A twirling mirror ball overhead also adds some visual flash to the image. Black levels tend to fluctuate, with some scenes looking elevated and others a little crushed, but overall contrast is fine.
The picture has a naturally rough quality that leads to an uneven but authentic image. Most, if not all, of the transfer's shortcomings are inherent to the original 16mm elements and the inevitable toll of time. While rarely impressive, the video does a perfectly fine job, and the opening animation looks fantastic.
The film is provided with three audio options. There's an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix of the original theatrical presentation, and new English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and PCM 2.0 re-mixes made specifically for this disc (and the previous DVD release). There are some pretty dramatic differences between the original track and the new mix, but all of the audio options offer an absolutely exceptional listening experience that should put a huge smile on any Deadhead's face.
The film was originally mixed in five channel surround sound under Jerry Garcia's supervision, so the included theatrical track is an authentic multi-channel representation of his artistic intentions. The new re-mix goes back to the initial source and uses the 16-track analog tape recordings from the concert to create a new audio experience that utilizes modern mixing and design techniques. For the original theatrical mix, vocals are mostly clean but a tad thin, and on several songs dispersed throughout the various channels without being designated to the center speaker. Separation around the sound stage is good, with Garcia and the rest of his team using sound delay effects and subtle reverberations to create an immersive and occasionally psychedelic experience. The opening animation is also a real auditory treat with lots of cool effects flowing around the soundscape. Rear speakers are active with discrete music cues and audience reactions adding to the enveloping quality of the track, placing the listener right in the crowd. Dynamic range is good with no major distortion. Overall fidelity is solid but instruments do sound comparatively delicate and faint. Since the original mix didn't have a discrete LFE track, the low end from the other five channels of audio has been used to create one, giving the track some decent bass response.
Though the original theatrical audio is great in its own right, by comparison, the new re-mix is much more robust and dynamic. Vocals are crisper, more pronounced, pristine, and consistently centralized. Separation is more precise and all encompassing, with a rich, full sound. Bass has more body and kick, and range feels more spacious. The differences between certain tracks can be very dramatic ("Sugar Magnolia," in particular, is almost night and day), and it wasn't until switching to the new mix that I realized how comparatively flat and thin a lot of the theatrical track really is. With that said, some of the quieter moments of the concert can seem a bit too aggressive in the new mix. Crowd reactions and separation vary between the two options, but neither one is really any more effective than the other. The documentary footage itself sounds the same on either track, coming through nice and clean. While on the surface the new mix is the clear technical winner, its more broadly "produced" quality lacks some of the artistry of Garcia's design work. I personally found myself torn between which option I preferred, as I admired certain qualities about both approaches. In the end, I'd say both surround sound mixes are equally strong in their own right, with the original track presenting a more creatively deliberate, disperse, but noticeably thinner soundscape, and the new mix providing an absolutely pristine, all encompassing, but depending on tastes, slightly over-produced "studio" quality. The 2.0 PCM track features the same design style as the new re-mix but of course lacks the added immersion and separation of the surround sound channels.
I've reviewed quite a few concert discs for a variety of musical styles, from AC/DC to Sheryl Crow, and the strength of the audio here almost makes me want to go back and lower the scores for those previous reviews. Basically, this sounds fantastic and no matter which option you go with, you will be treated to an immersive and simply wonderful concert experience. It's amazing that the producers of this release decided to put the time and money into a brand new mix and the fact that they offer audiences a choice between the new and old tracks is phenomenal. Whether you’re a hardcore audio purist or find yourself open to modern re-mixes, all tastes are accommodated for, making this a real treat for any serious audiophile or Deadhead.
Shout Factory has put together a nice assortment of special features, including a commentary, bonus songs, and a retrospective documentary. With the exception of the commentary, all of the extras are presented on the included DVD disc in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitle options, unless noted otherwise.
Disc One (Blu-ray)
Disc Two (DVD)
'The Grateful Dead Movie' is a fantastic concert film that showcases the band during one of its creative peaks. With equal focus not only on the group and music, but on the fans themselves, the film encapsulates an entire culture and places the audience right in the thick of the performances. The video transfer is authentic but rough, and the audio is absolutely exceptional, giving fans several great options to hear the music. Supplements are plentiful and informative, including some fantastic bonus songs, which all round out a great package. This is a top-tier concert disc that hardcore Deadheads and casual fans alike should not hesitate to pick up. Highly recommended.