“Grateful Dawg” keeps music in the forefront

Grateful Dawg

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
January 18, 2002

2.5 stars

The footage in “Grateful Dawg” is raw, the camerawork is iffy and the sound bites aren’t compelling enough to warrant feature film treatment. But the music of the late Jerry Garcia and David “Dawg” Grisman–the stars of this documentary–makes this 81-minute excursion worthwhile.

Directed by Grisman’s daughter, Gillian, “Grateful Dawg” is an insider’s peek at two look-alike musicians who shared a passion for music. Sitting on stiff chairs playing guitars and joyously singing, the scruffy duo is succinctly described by Grisman’s wife as “beards of a feather.”

Garcia is described as an “in the moment” kind of guy who didn’t get bent out of shape about musical errors. Grisman is depicted as a perfectionist. We are told the two rubbed off on each other, though we don’t really see (or hear) that genesis in the documentary.

Of his father’s relationship with Garcia, Grisman’s son says, “It was all about hanging out. Playing some music.”

When Gillian told her father she’d like to make the film, he made a request. She could shoot the film, but only if she included all the selected songs in their entirety. His theory was if she was making a movie about musicians, the end product should be about music rather than people talking about music.

Though it doesn’t sound like a difficult promise to keep, bear in mind the pair is famous for their improvisational jam sessions. For instance, “Arabia” alone is 17 minutes long. But Gillian keeps her promise in a clever way. As the music plays, she intersperses footage of the two with interviews of family members and musicians such as Bela Fleck, Ronnie McCoury and Vassar Clements. The segues aren’t jarring MTV-style cuts and edits. Rather, they dissolve at a pace as relaxed and homey as the duo’s music.

This documentary doesn’t delve into other aspects of their friendship outside of music. But it is successful in demonstrating the pair’s love of all kinds of music–blues, country, sea chanteys, rock and even children’s songs. One of the more amusing vignettes shows Garcia and Grisman collaborating on a children’s record. Garcia describes today’s kids’ songs as “bloodthirsty, violent … American.”

Garcia and Grisman met in 1964 at a concert by bluegrass artist Bill Monroe. Bonded by their love of music, they formed their own group (Old and In the Way) before Garcia decided to start another band–the Grateful Dead. In 1990–five years before Garcia died at the age of 53–they began working together again in Grisman’s northern California home studio where they took delight in each other’s company.

At one point, Garcia sings a whaling ballad called “Off to the Sea Once More,” which sounds suspiciously like Leonard Cohen’s “Leaving Green Sleeves.” The song is out of character from what we expect from him. Perhaps because of that, it’s that much more memorable.

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