RAMBLIN ROUND: Jerry Garcia: Another Long and Strange Journey in the Scorsese Biopic | New
While Martin Scorsese was filming his new movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” in Oklahoma, he is already preparing another film – a cinematic biography of the founding member of Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia.
While Scorsese has a great track record with his music-related films and for the soundtracks of his other films, I initially felt a bit of trepidation when I learned of the planned biopic on Garcia. It seems that the film biographies of musical artists fall into two categories – very, very good ones and everything in between.
One of the keys to a successful musical biopic is having an actor or actress with the charisma to play the role. It is not enough just to look like the singer or musician depicted, and that also requires more than skilled acting chops. Just because someone is a great actor doesn’t mean they can be a musical artist convincingly.
Scorsese brought in Jonah Hill to play Garcia. I can see this. Hill is a talented actor who has already received two Oscar nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actor in a previous Scorsese film, “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
What about the other talented musicians of the Grateful Dead? Who will play as Bob Weir, who has taken the role of what a rhythm guitarist can do to a whole new level, after studying the techniques used by jazz pianists? Or Phil Lesh, the band’s virtuoso bassist with a background in avant-garde and classical music, who ultimately needed a six-string bass to cover his musical explorations. And who will play the two master drummers of the group? Original member Bill Kreutzmann was later joined by Mickey Hart, the two playing in tandem for most of the 30 years the main group was together.
The three still play together in a setup called Dead & Company, augmented by John Mayer on numerous leads and vocals previously performed by Garcia. Mayer doesn’t wisely attempt to emulate Garcia, but finds his own space while remaining largely true to the Grateful Dead vibe.
Lesh, the other surviving member of the Grateful Dead, performs with his own band called Phil Lesh and Friends, while Kreutzmann occasionally performs with another branch called Billy and the Kids, often featuring acoustic guitar genius Billy Strings.
All of this shows that the surviving members of the band are still extremely active, not resting on any sort of musical laurels, but still playing for many grateful fans.
I also can’t wait to see how Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – a founding member who played keyboards and harmonica who brought his rhythm and blues rumble to the band’s early albums – is portrayed in the film, along with Robert Hunter, the gifted lyricist who wrote the words Garcia set to music.
What about other keyboardists who have become full members, including Keith Godchaux, who along with his wife, singer Donna Jean, joined the band for most of the 1970s, or Brent Mydland, whose has the exceptional work on piano and organ added so much to the group in its later years?
Also thank Tom Constanten, who rose Pigpen at the start of the group, and also Vince Welnick, who took over from Mydland in the group.
Wait a minute! I don’t have to worry too much about whether the contributions of other band members will be overlooked in Garcia’s biopic. Weir, Lesh, and Kreutzmann are all listed as executive producers, along with Garcia’s daughters. I’m already starting to feel a little better about the project.
It also ensures that the music for Grateful Dead will be available for the film. This is another advantage! We won’t have to watch – or hear – anyone attempt the impossible task of replicating those magical guitar lines Garcia seemingly pulled out of the cosmos. I repeat. Calling the Grateful Dead a jam group is like calling Bach a pianist. It’s as legendary promoter Bill Graham once said, âThey’re not the best at what they do; they are the only ones doing what they are doing.
What they have done and are doing is writing sublime and original songs which, live, could lead to unique interpretations in any given performance. While the band didn’t reach these creative heights with every performance, part of the joy lay in listening to them play “Without a Net” – which is the name of one of their live albums.
They had only one hit in the top 10, not in the 1960s but in 1987, with “Touch of Gray”, with the catchy chorus: “I will get by. I will survive”. The video was a hit on MTV and suddenly the band had a whole new audience besides the so-called Deadheads, who followed them from town to town.
By the 1990s, the Grateful Dead were filling professional football stadiums, becoming the highest-grossing American group of the 1990s with total sales of $ 285 million, just behind the Rolling Stones. Even more impressive, they did so in the middle of the decade, before Jerry Garcia’s untimely death in 1995.
Even now, they are looking for their fans and gathering new ones. The Grateful Dead have recorded and filmed many of their concerts, with high quality production values. Many of their filmed concerts, especially those in recent years, are theatrical quality, with multiple camera angles and superior sound.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the group made many of these available online for free – in addition to the live tours that surviving members do in their various configurations. This has led to a lot more fans getting on the bus – once they start listening, they want more.
So I have high hopes for the next Scorsese biopic. After all, it was the director who made the much-loved 2017 documentary about the band, titled âLong Strange Trip,â based on a line from âTruckin ‘â – one of their best-known songs.
Scorsese also directed “The Last Waltz”, on The Band’s last gig and was involved in the filming of the documentary “Woodstock”, so I would say the Garcia project is in good hands as a director.
Contact James Beaty at [email protected]