Written by Mike Bruno
Dawn of the Dead is a documentary trying to explain the phenomenal impact of the Grateful Dead and how they influenced not only those in the general vicinity but reached out across a country and the world. The movie captures the journey of the Dead and the entire culture that sprang up in San Francisco in the early 60’s.
Each band member brought their own unique sound to the band. Jerry Garcia was a great folk music player, and Phil Lesh was classically trained, while PigPen, whose dad was a radio DJ, was heavily influenced by the blues (along with a lot of alcohol). Though these musical sounds were diametrically opposed, this film elaborates on how this band wove themselves together while still holding on to their roots. Historians and authors who lived as well as studied these stories, come together to enlighten viewers about how events such as the Human Be-In and the Acid Tests not only changed the band’s music but the whole music scene and the world around it.
One thing I enjoyed more than anything else was connections about how the band members actually started playing together in Palo Alto and the outlying areas. This film also features other bands of the time like Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Co. Though you get to hear some songs from these bands, for me it kind of jumped away from the story itself. There’s an amazing piece done by Janis Joplin, but I actually didn’t want to see her perform. I would have preferred to watch more of the Dead play, but this segment showed how playing at the Monterey Pop Festival could skyrocket a band’s career or have them come crashing down too.
This doc also give us a view into the world of the producer, men such as Bill Graham, who opened up the Fillmore East, and Chet Helms, who opened up the Avalon Ball Room. They knew the money that could be made from this counterculture revolution and the film draws these lines to highlight the time frame when all this was coming together.
Some of us will think this is a story already told, and for most parts it has, over and over again, but for this film, it makes its mark by highlighting not only the Dead as a band but how the band’s lifestyle choices and how its music was meant for the people around them and not for the mass media market that was realizing the potential of the up-and-coming market of pop culture. For those of us who already know these stories the film does drag on, but if you put the joint down and pay attention, you will learn small facts that added up to the big picture.
The Grateful Dead said that the audience was the scene and they were just the soundtrack, but Dawn of the Dead shows how the band was the scene along with the audience, myself included, and what a long strange trip it’s been.