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'Grateful Dawg'

Documentary captures the magic between Garcia and Grisman

Friday, November 23, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Grateful Dawg" reveals the Jerry Garcia that those who know him only as a rock icon never imagined -- playing banjo and acoustic guitar, singing sea chanteys and children's songs, wearing a suit and tie (!) in a music video of the blues classic "The Thrill Is Gone."

 
 
'Grateful Dawg'

RATING: PG-13 for brief language

DIRECTOR: Gillian Grisman

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

This affectionate documentary, now at the Harris Theater, chronicles the collaboration between the leader of the Grateful Dead and mandolin virtuoso David Grisman (Garcia gave him the nickname Dawg), who teamed up to make albums, concert appearances and simply to jam together whenever possible over the last five years of Garcia's life.

The film is built around a dozen of their recordings featuring a diverse range of musical styles and a camaraderie between the musicians so pronounced that it almost seems they share a psychic link, as suggested by many of their associates interviewed in the movie.

Grisman and Garcia first met in 1964 at a bluegrass venue in eastern Pennsylvania. They had come to hear the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Garcia went home to San Francisco and formed the Dead, but in the early 1970s he teamed with Grisman and three other musicians to form the short-lived but legendary bluegrass group Old & In the Way.

Not until 1989 did Garcia and Grisman -- by this time a renowned musician in his own right -- reunite. They would not be parted again until Garcia's death in 1995.

Each man complemented the other. Grisman was a traditionalist and a strict constructionist. Garcia was legendary for his freewheeling ways. But their styles harmonized perfectly and the two men even grew to look alike, each with a thick gray beard and a twinkle in his eyes.

"Grateful Dawg" was directed by Grisman's daughter Gillian, who had taken home video of the two men performing together (usually with percussionist Joe Craven and bassist Jim Kerwin) in the Grisman living room or basement recording studio. The intimacy and naturalness of these sequences pull the viewer right into the frame.

The director intercuts them with concert footage from a reunion concert at a Mill Valley club called Sweetwater and from a show at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. Archival film and interviews with friends, family and colleagues round out the movie.

David Grisman insisted that the musical numbers be presented in their entirety, which was a problem in part because there wasn't enough video footage, particularly of a 17-minute piece called "Arabia." That mitigates the frustration of having interview segments talk over the musical tracks at various points -- apparently there was no other way to bridge the gaps.

But everything sounds good, including the "Thrill is Gone" segment -- a music video by Justin Kreutzmann, the son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann.

"Grateful Dawg" is in many ways a family affair that invites us in.

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