“The Grateful Dead: Anthem to Beauty” installment of the
Classic Albums series is different. Instead of dedicating the
DVD to the production of one album, this 2005 re-release of
the 1997 film features an entire era of this band, primarily
covering the years between their formation in 1965 and
the release of their “American Beauty” album in 1970.
Although The Grateful Dead released five studio albums and
one double “live” album during the aforementioned years, the
emphasis was placed on their 1968 “Anthem of the Sun” release,
along with their 1970 album releases of “Workingman’s Dead”
and “American Beauty.”
The Grateful Dead was “sui generis” in more ways than one,
combining elements of Bluegrass, Folk, Country and Psychedelic
music into songs that could each last more than a half-hour
when performed “live.” This documentary made it clear that
these band members created their own rules in the studio
and on stage, literally learning the ropes “on the fly,”
particularly where their “Anthem of the Sun” release was
concerned. While making this album, they produced tracks
that combined footage from different live concerts with
studio elements. This technique hadn’t been done before.
With the release of “Workingman’s Dead,” a couple of years
later, they primarily used acoustic instruments and placed
a greater emphasis on the lyrics. In most respects, it was
an album in which the band was “getting back to Earth”
and in a sense, reinventing Folk music. At this time, they
recorded under the Warner Brothers label, and the
executives there were more pleased with this album.
“American Beauty” was released shortly thereafter, and
was regarded by many as an artistic highpoint for the band.
However, anyone who knows anything about The Grateful
Dead is aware that it truly excelled as a “live” act. Fortunately,
this film provides numerous clips taken from various shows,
and depicts the San Francisco scene of the mid to late 1960’s,
giving viewers a bit of “Haight-Ashbury 101.” Bassist Phil Lesh
and guitarist Bob Weir were featured at the mixing console,
reliving and replaying tracks from that era, and interviews
are also included with drummer Mickey Hart, primary lyricist
Robert Hunter and the late vocalist and guitarist, Jerry Garcia
(1942-1995). Additional insights and recollections were
provided by various recording executives, album cover
artists, and David Crosby.
The Grateful Dead continued touring and releasing more studio,
official and “unofficial” live recordings, until Garcia’s death in 1995.
Occasional personnel changes were made, primarily at the
keyboard chair, and sometimes they used one drummer, instead
of two. Due to constantly playing live and incessantly touring,
they forged a near-telepathic musical rapport with each other,
and the results could vary between striking music-making and
aimless meandering. Phil Lesh likened the various players to
“different fingers on the same hand,” which was a good analogy.
At a running time of 75 minutes, this film is a bit short when
compared with other DVDs in the series, especially in light of how
much music is discussed. Nevertheless, a good use was made
of the time. “The Grateful Dead: Anthem to Beauty” is a nice
documentary of this seminal band and another worthwhile
installment in the Classic Albums series.