`Dawg' reveals a different Garcia

Documentary: Video is an insider's portrait of the late Grateful Dead singer and `musicologist.'

November 09, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

When she began shooting the tape that would one day form the basis of Grateful Dawg, Gillian Grisman had no intention of making a movie.

She says she was practicing with the camera, really, as she chronicled the dynamic musical collaboration of her father, mandolin master David Grisman, and Grateful Dead ringleader Jerry Garcia in the years before Garcia's death.

She set up the camera in the living room of Grisman's Mill Valley, Calif., home, followed the men into a basement studio as they recorded their bluegrass-inspired tunes and joked around - even catching Garcia in mid-inspiration.

It wasn't until nearly five years after Garcia's 1995 death that David Grisman asked his daughter what she intended to do with boxes of videos she'd left at his house.

What eventually emerged was Grateful Dawg - an intimate and familial portrait of the duo at practice, at show, at Grisman's home, family, friends, pets all around. It is a treasure for fans, if perhaps not for the uninitiated.

"I don't think the film would have happened if anyone else would have made it or if I would even have gone in there with the intention of making this documentary," says Gillian Grisman, 32, in Washington recently promoting the film opening at the Charles Theatre today. "They gave Justin [Kreutzmann, son of the Dead's drummer Bill Kreutzmann] and me access into an intimate recording environment because it didn't seem intrusive - we were family."

The 82-minute documentary that Gillian Grisman directed features, at David Grisman's insistence, complete versions of all songs instead of clips - including the 16-minute "Arabia," unreleased live footage and the 1991 video for The Thrill is Gone that Kreutzmann directed. It traces the Garcia/Grisman friendship and fruitful collaboration from its roots at a 1964 concert of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe at Sunset Park in Pennsylvania through Garcia's death 30 years later.

Grisman and Garcia teamed up with Peter Rowan and John Kahn to form the short-lived bluegrass revival group Old and In the Way in the mid-1970s. But then the friends parted ways over a royalties dispute, Gillian Grisman says. David Grisman founded Dawg Music (after the nickname Garcia had given him) as Garcia and the Grateful Dead, formed in 1965, exploded into psychedelic stardom.

They reunited at a mutual friend's recording session in 1987 and spent the 1990s churning out five albums - traditional acoustic songs, sea shanties, folk music and even whimsical children's songs - that were Garcia's sole studio work in those years.

In Grateful Dawg, the viewer sees Garcia in those final years as Gillian Grisman saw him, stripped almost completely from the Grateful Dead context (so much so that a viewer who did not know there was this musical phenomenon called the Dead could leave the film unenlightened). Instead, Grisman shows us "Uncle Jerry," the man who taught her to play the F chord on the guitar and recorded in the basement with her dad.

Grisman shows a side she says is overlooked when people think of Garcia, who died in a California drug treatment center at age 53.

"He is revered and known by millions of people as a cult icon, a psychedelic rock guru, a guy who had his battles with drugs," Gillian Grisman says of Garcia. "But few people know this side of him - they never had access to the guy who picked the banjo, loved American roots music, was a musicologist, a humorist, a laid-back guy."

This is a video stroll through a family scrapbook - an insider's view of musical friends who were, as Grisman's wife, Pam, says in the film, "beards of a feather."

In his music with Grisman, Garcia had come full circle by the time of his death, Gillian Grisman says, performing in a relaxed musical environment the kind of music that stirred his soul.

"This thing with the Grateful Dead was huge. It was an institution. And that was taxing," she says. "Here, it was about picking up a guitar and a mandolin and playing the music that had inspired him to play music 30 years before."

Movie review

Grateful Dawg

Rated PG-13 (occasional strong language). Sun score:

This sweet, musically magical film about the friendship and collaborations of the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and world-class mandolin player David "Dawg" Grisman comes off as a classy valentine to two men who shared a love of fusing different styles of music.

The film - Grisman's daughter Gillian's debut as a documentary producer and director - weaves together live footage, studio performances and comments from Garcia, Grisman, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan and various musicians and family members.

What emerges, while short on specifics, is charming and multifaceted: a feast for the ears; an interesting (and rare) look at Garcia's musical life outside the Grateful Dead.

Knight Ridder/Tribune

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