DIRECTED BY Gillian Grisman
STARRING Jerry Garcia, David Grisman
Opened December 13, Cert 12A, 81 mins
Away from the spaced-out acid jams of The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia had a profound and abiding love for acoustic bluegrass music. He first met the mandolin player David Grisman in the 1960s, and in the early ’70s the two formed Dead offshoot Old & In The Way to play Bill Monroe tunes and other bluegrass favourites. So close did these kindred spirits become that they even ended up looking like each other (“two beards of the same feather”, as one wag put it). Grateful Dawg chronicles their friendship and musical partnership, which endured until Garcia’s death in 1995.
Much of the film consists of live footage from a December 1990 concert at Sweetwater, Marin County (one of the world’s great music bars) and a second show a year later in San Francisco. Together they play everything from Jimmy Cliff’s “Sittin’ In Limbo” to their own mellow compositions such as “Dawg’s Waltz”, via the Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil”.
There’s an appealing warmth to the performances, with Garcia visibly relaxed. Even better are the intimate scenes of the two beards playing together, shot by Grisman’s daughter Gillian, who set up a camera whenever Jerry visited to play in his buddy’s living room. The musical footage is capped by moving?if not particularly illuminating?scenes in which Grisman and others talk about what Garcia meant to them.
There’s no attempt to present an objective view or assess the music’s significance, and Gillian Grisman is clearly involved with her subject on a highly personal level. Yet this becomes one of the film’s main strengths. The other is simply the intuitive playing of the two soul mates. Grateful Dawg is not one of those music documentaries that ends up leaving you frustrated because you want to hear more music and less talk. Indeed, the music is the real star here. Rough and unsophisticated but totally endearing, it’s more like a home movie than a conventional documentary. But therein lies its unique charm.