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With: Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Joe Craven, Ricky Jay, Jim Kerwin
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Gillian Grisman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language
Running Time: 81
Date: 10/14/2000

Grateful Dawg (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bring Out Your Dead

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new film Grateful Dawg, which covers Jerry Garcia's time spent with the mandolin player/composer David Grisman, is about as insubstantial as a documentary can get. It reminded me of another documentary I reviewed two years ago called Get Bruce! about the TV and comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. Both movies clock in at a little more than an hour, which probably prompted the filmmakers to think, "Hey -- I have a Feature Film here." And this somehow led to theatrical distribution, whereas PBS might have been more appropriate.

On the other hand, while Get Bruce! plays just fine on TV, Grateful Dawg offers the chance to listen to some joyously great music on the big, loud speakers of your local multiplex.

The name "Grateful Dawg" is the playful combination of Garcia, famous for heading the band the Grateful Dead, and Grisman's own nickname, Dawg. As the movie explains, Garcia and Grisman first played together in a short-lived folk-type band called Old and In the Way in the mid-'70s. They had met earlier, in 1964, in the parking lot of a bluegrass concert where musicians gathered to play between acts.

But the real story begins in 1987 when Garcia and Grisman began playing acoustic sessions together at Grisman's home studio, trying out all kinds of different music from folk to bluegrass to reggae to kids' songs. They recorded 44 sessions of music, which has only resulted in five albums so far, with many more to come. The bulk of Grateful Dawg deals with these sessions.

As directed by Grisman's daughter Gillian, Grateful Dawg features a few interviews with friends, colleagues and David Grisman himself, none of which particularly reveals anything interesting. She even includes an unreleased music video for Garcia and Grisman's rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone," seemingly to pad out the running time a bit.

Still, any bit of music we can get helps. My favorite moments in the film include a children's song called "Jenny Jenkins" and other nifty jams like "Sitting Here in Limbo" and "Friend of the Devil."

Attending college in San Francisco, I was surrounded by Deadheads forever trying to convince me of their favorite band's genius. It's nearly impossible to listen to the band's studio recordings and understand why this band was so infectious. I found that the only way to discover it for yourself was to see the Grateful Dead live, which I was lucky enough to do once, in 1993. A few of these small magic "live concert" moments come through in Grateful Dawg, which in itself is a miraculous achievement.

It occurred to me that though not much really happens in Grateful Dawg, a full-length Garcia biography probably would not have revealed much more than we get here. In fact, just looking at the joy in Garcia's face while he's playing at these unusual and relaxed sessions tells the whole story: that the Grateful Dead was killing him, spiritually, creatively and physically. If he could have retired from his multimillion-dollar touring band and played exclusively with Grisman, there's little doubt he would have survived a few more years.

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