THE GRATEFUL DEAD (and others)
Dawn of the Dead
Sexy Intellectual, 2012, 138 mins.
The Grateful Dead machine continues to pump out merch. Even diehard Deadheads admit that Grateful Dead films stretch the definition of surrealism, hence Dawn of the Dead will come a revelation–it’s easily the most comprehensible film project ever done on Jerry Garcia and the lads. The hardcore may not be as pleased to see their heroes as just part of a larger drama rather the movers and shakers of all things groovy.
The Grateful Dead is placed solidly within a broader context: folk music, jug bands, avant-garde modernism, and emerging subcultures. We see the Dead emerge from late 50s/early 60s ethos in which the Beats slowly yielded to hippies, with a big assist given by the Merry Pranksters. The film smartly documents the musical evolution in the Bay area, a reminder that acid rock owed as much inspirational debt to protest singers, bluegrass pickers, experimental composers, and jazz artists as Stanley Owsley’s prowess with a chemistry set. Once the Bay area scene unfolds, the film makes The Dead central, but the video gives lots of screen time to others, including: Monterrey Pop artists, The Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Charlatans, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Members of the latter two groups have as much to say about what went down as Dead insiders such as Rock Scully, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir. We witness the rise of mid-‘60s utopian dreams, which culminated in Family Dog Productions, the Diggers, Bill Graham and Fillmore West, and the 1967 Summer of Love. We also see the magic dissipate amidst San Francisco’s post-‘67 urban chaos and the 1969 Altamont festival, The film is one of the best explanations I’ve viewed of the Americana musical retreat beaten by former psychedelic artists fleeing to the relative sanity of Marin County and beyond. Overall the film is a dizzying tour of musical (and hippie) milestones between 1960 through 1971.
As a musical history it is absolutely first-rate. Its major weakness is that it could stand to lose a few music critics in favor of consulting some social historians. There is an unintentional reductionism to the film in that the Bay area is viewed as way more representative of the 1960s than it really was. There is not question that San Francisco occupied a mythical psychic space for those seeking the Flower Child vibe, but that was just one of many paths followed in the Sixties. The filmmakers elide the counterculture, politics, and ideology, and fail to tell us that America often looked quite different once one strayed beyond Haight-Ashbury. There is also a tendency to view all young people as homogeneous, as if hippies were also politicos, for instance. Many–including the notoriously apolitical Grateful Dead–were quite separate, just as the East Coast scene was often very different from the West Coast. (This film culminates in 1971, but The Grateful Dead are not a major phenomenon in the East until later in the 1970s.) Dawn of the Dead is a superb musical chronicle, but don’t trust the social commentary.--Rob Weir