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Credit: Warner Bros.

Music

When the Grateful Dead nearly bankrupted themselves producing a concert film

@TylerGolsen

Even 45 years later, The Grateful Dead Movie is still a wild cinematic trip. Starting off with a wild seven-minute animated sequence filled with references to the band’s songs and mythos, the film is an amalgamation of all kinds of different film genres: part animated acid trip, part fan-focused documentary, and part concert film catching the Dead right before they hit a major turning point in their career.

By 1974, Jerry Garcia had surprised the other members of the band and the larger Grateful Dead family by announcing that he wanted to take a break from touring. Since forming in 1965, the band had played live virtually nonstop for a decade, but complications soon arose. The Wall of Sound, the massive PA system that revolutionised concert sound, was a massive financial investment and was backbreaking to assemble night after night. More so than anything else, Garcia was feeling burned out from the Grateful Dead and wished to explore other musical opportunities. The other members agreed, and so a series of five concerts at the band’s home base of the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California, was scheduled for October.

The shows were a major success, with former drummer Mickey Hart returning to guest on the second set of the final show. Garcia hatched a plan to assemble the footage from director Leon Gast into a concert film that could tour in place of the band. The Dead weren’t done: they were planning on recording an album during their touring break in 1975, which eventually became Blues for Allah. But they had numerous financial concerns, including an independent record label and a number of employees who were now off the road and in need of money, that could be offset by a successful film.

Garcia made it clear that he wanted to be involved in the film’s entire production, from directing to editing to mixing. Gast left the assembly of the film as a result, and Garcia’s relative inexperience as a filmmaker caused the post-production of the film to drag on for nearly three years. Over 100 hours of footage had to be reduced to just two hours of film, but Garcia’s ambitions conflicted with the tedious process involved in cutting the film down.

The opening animated sequence cost as much to produce as the rest of the film, courtesy of animator Gary Gutierrez. With costs piling up, the Dead were forced to turn back on their independent record label, needing the massive distribution and advance windfall that came with signing to a major label. Clive Davis at Arista Records took the band in, and The Grateful Dead Movie was to be distributed by United Artists, the production company originally co-founded by Charlie Chaplin.

“The movie was a classic Grateful Dead thing where they didn’t think about it in advance,” band publicist Dennis McNally reflected in the band’s oral history This Is All a Dream We Dreamed. “But it became Jerry’s personal project, so nobody was going to interfere with it. On the other hand, he almost had to steal money from the Grateful Dead to get it done.”

Eventually, The Grateful Dead Movie was released in June of 1977, nearly three years after the original concerts. By that point, Hart had fully rejoined and the band were playing material from both Blues for Allah and Terrapin Station, neither of which existed during the filming of the concerts. The band sent the film out on a roadshow tour instead of producing a major distribution campaign, and it failed to make the profit that had originally been envisioned for the production. Largely thanks to their dire financial situation, the Dead returned to the road in 1976 and never left.

During the original wave of Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, the Dead’s YouTube channel began officially releasing full concert videos from across the band’s history. One of those videos was The Grateful Dead Movie, which you can now watch for free online.

Check out the full trip down below.