Given that "Grateful Dawg" focuses on the collaboration between Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, it's to be expected that the music is going to be wonderful, and it is. But there is more to this film, a surprising amount more.
Garcia, the late lead guitarist and singer for the Grateful Dead, and Grisman, a mandolin virtuoso with an eclectic style who's been called the Paganini of the instrument, each created and ruled his own musical universe. When those worlds combined, the music that resulted, released on five albums in the years leading up to Garcia's death in 1995, was both exceptionally smart and supremely melodic.
By focusing so specifically on this one relationship, filmmaker Gillian Grisman (David's daughter) has given us a bigger picture as well. "Grateful Dawg" examines, almost without trying, how creativity happens on the ground. There's dramatic interest here and emotional material as well. While movie versions of musical collaborations usually focus on volatile personalities in towering conflict, the Garcia-Grisman interaction was heartening in its camaraderie and warmth. Just a glance at the rehearsal videos and concert footage Grisman has used shows two men who enjoyed each other's company personally and professionally. Roly-poly bearded soul mates, Garcia and Grisman relished feeding off each other's gifts. A palpable generosity of spirit flows between them during their cheerful jam sessions, and they both seemed to understand how complimentary they were. "David tightened up Jerry, and Jerry loosened up David" is how one observer insightfully summed it up, and to see their renditions of Jimmy Cliff's "Sitting' Here in Limbo" or the Dead classic "Friend of the Devil" is to bask in the results.
The only surprise is that it took so long to happen. Pioneering urban bluegrass players of the same generation, Garcia and Grisman met in 1964 when they went to see Bill Monroe at Pennsylvania's Sunset Park. Veterans of groups with names like the Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys and the New York City Ramblers, they joined Vassar Clements to form the influential albeit short-lived Old & In the Way, and Grisman played mandolin on Dead standards "Friend of the Devil" and "Ripple" on the band's "American Beauty" album.
Out of touch for a dozen years, they found each other again in the late 1980s; video footage of their first reunion concert at Sweetwater, a Northern California club, is a feature of "Grateful Dawg." By then, Grisman had formed his own label, Acoustic Disc, and when he suggested that he, Garcia and two musicians from the David Grisman Quartet, bass player Jim Kerwin and percussionist Joe Craven, record together, Garcia happily agreed.
The musicians managed 44 recording sessions before Garcia's death. Because Garcia and Grisman were both musicologists, a wide variety of material was handled, from sea shanties to children's songs--which Garcia ended up enjoying but initially resisted, wife Deborah Koons Garcia explains, because he disliked further attempts to pigeonhole him as a father figure.
Musical reasons aside, "Grateful Dawg" makes it obvious that Garcia relished these sessions because they were a safe haven from the phenomenon that was the Grateful Dead, allowing him to relax in the kid-and dog-friendly "big comfortable living room space" that was the Grisman studio.
Because he died prematurely, the film inevitably functions in part as a Garcia memorial, a looking back at a less-publicized aspect of his career. Producer-director Gillian Grisman and associate producer Justin Kreutzmann (who did a Garcia-Grisman music video that's part of the film) recorded many of the Garcia-Grisman sessions on video without any thought of future use. "We had cameras," Gillian Grisman says, "and time to kill."
When the idea to make a feature came up, David Grisman put but a single stricture on his daughter: Any song she used had to be played in its entirety. Given the standards of musicianship both Grisman and Garcia demonstrate here, it couldn't have been any other way.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief language. Times guidelines: unobjectionable.
An Acoustic Disc and 11th Hour Productions and Entertainment Inc. production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Gillian Grisman. Producer Gillian Grisman. Executive producers Craig Miller, David Grisman. Editor Josh Baron. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times