Revisiting Jerry Garcia’s “The Grateful Dead Movie” with animation by Gary Gutierrez, 1977

By on July 1, 2015

With all of the recent talk about the Grateful Dead’s farewell — the band’s final three 50th anniversary “fare thee well” shows kick off Friday, July 3-5, at Soldier Field in Chicago, the site of the Grateful Dead’s final show with the late Jerry Garcia on July 9, 1995 — we thought we’d take another look back at the band in their heyday, and share the first eleven minutes of The Grateful Dead Movie.

Released in 1977 and co-directed by Jerry Garcia and cinematographer Leon Gast, with fantastic animation done by Gary Gutierrez, The Grateful Dead Movie captures performances from the band’s October 1974 five-night stand (October 16–20, 1974) at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, CA.

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According to the entry in The American Book of the Dead, by Oliver Trager:

“Filmmaking had interested Garcia since the early 1960s when he spent time working on soundtracks at the Standford University Communications Department. With this background in the visual arts, Garcia was drawn to the notion of doing a Grateful Dead movie, and discussing the decision to film all nights of the Winterland run with Steve Weitzman of Relix magazine in 1977, Garcia explained, ‘When we decided we weren’t going to perform anymore, our farewell show, so to speak, was five days at Winterland.

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It was after we got back from our second trip to Europe — October ’74. About a month before the Winterland dates I got the idea that it would be a neat idea to be able to film it, just because I didn’t know if we were going to perform in that kind of situation again. And that five nights in a place would at least give us the possibility, numerically anyway, that we would have one or two really good nights. In about two or theee weeks, the whole production thing came together to make the movie.

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‘At first we thought, let’ just make a record of the idea, and I wanted it to look good. I wanted it to be really well filmed but I didn’t really know a lot about film when the idea got under way, but when it was time for the show to start, we have about nine camera crews and a lot of good backup people, good lighting people, and the whole thing was already on its way to happening. It was chaotic but well organized in spite of the relatively short pre-production time we had. After the five days were over — and during that time I involved myself mostly with the music, I didn’t really get into the film part — we had a couple hundred thousand feet of film in the can.

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So then it was, What’s goin’ to happen with this? Originally, we were thinking in terms of what about a canned concert. Would something like that work? Could we send out a filmed version of ourselves? Then, after getting involved and interested in the movie as a project, I started looking at the footage and the concert stuff and I felt there was a movie there. A movie in the movie sense rather than a movie in the concert sense.’

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Garcia and the band’s soundman Dan Healy took the film to Burbank Studios to mix the soundtrack, painstakingly synching the footage with the music. After editing the film down to the final length of 131 minutes, Garcia had once again learned a craft through trail-by-fire, describing the experience as ‘two years of incredible doubt.'”

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Gutierrez, meanwhile, had already apprenticed at John Korty’s Mill Valley studio as an animator of children’s films, creating and directing live action and animation for “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company,” before working on the Dead’s animated sequence. He continued working withe band on various projects of theirs, including the surreal title sequence for the CBS revival of “The Twilight Zone” television series, for which Garcia composed the score.

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In 1977, in partnership with Drew Takahashi, he formed Colossal Pictures, an animation, visual effects and live action production company, which grew to become a nationally-recognized prime supplier of TV commercials, visual effects and broadcast IDs. One of their early projects was doing the storyboards for the racing and riding sequences for The Black Stallion, produced by Francis Ford Coppola for American Zoetrope. Gutierrez left Colossal Pictures in 1996, accepting an invitation to base himself at American Zoetrope, occasionally contributing to projects there while also working independently.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.