Monday, 30 July 2012

The Grateful Dead Movie

In March 1973 Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, The Grateful Dead's organ-playing blues man died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. A heartbroken Jerry Garcia summed up the loss of one of the band's founding members, "We can go on calling ourselves The Grateful Dead but after Pigpen's death we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead". A year later Garcia's words took on greater significance when it was announced that the Dead were taking an indefinite hiatus. By 1974 the band was exhausted. They had survived a series of back-to-back grinding tours, but the task of truckin' the Dead's massive Wall of Sound, a 641 strong speaker cabinet from one show to another was putting an enormous drain on the band's finances. Individual band members were also eager to record their own material and with that the Dead were put on hold. The retirement would prove short lived when they reconvened in February 1975 to record the Blues for Allah album, but as preparations were made for a 5-night farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland in October (dubbed The Last One), Garcia had the idea that if the band was about to meet its end there should be definitive document and with that came The Grateful Dead Movie

Jerry Garcia was a life long cinephile. From an early age Garcia loved Horror movies and later became a devotee of European Art Cinema. Garcia had strong aspirations to become a film maker but his life was entirely devoted to his music. Garcia recruited documentarian Leon Gast to direct the film, then provisionally titled There is Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert, and what began as a straightforward visual record of the Dead's performance soon evolved into a documentary encompassing the entire Grateful Dead experience - the music, the band, the fans, the stage set-up, the road crew, and the drugs. Gast placed seven camerman (among them Albert Maysles) around the stage to fully capture every nuance of the Dead's performance across the 5-nights, with additional footage shot within the audience and in and around Winterland. Immediately after the Winterland shows Gast flew to Zaire to film the three-day music festival which preceded the Ali/Foreman fight (the footage which later became the Soul Power documentary), and Garcia took over as "editorial director" charged with the unenviable task of sculpting 125 hours of performance footage into a coherent, commercial film.

The Grateful Dead Movie, Garcia's labour of love (or Jerry's Jerk-off as Phil Lesh once described it), didn't see the light of a projector bulb for almost three years. As well as sifting through the footage in search of the best performances and the best coverage, Garcia and soundman Dan Healy pioneered a new innovative type of mixing which resulted in a perfect symbiosis of image and sound. The film's post production had put the Dead's finances in another precarious situation - when the project was first mooted in 1974, the budget was set at a modest $15,000 but by the time the film had its premiere in New York in June 1977, the film swallowed up a staggering $600,000. The film took a heavy toll on Garcia as well - "Every time I thought about something, my mind would come back to the film and I'd get depressed", and towards the completion of the film a stressed out Garcia sought refuge in heroin. Rather than distribute the film along conventional lines, the movie was booked to play special Roadshow style exhibitions in major cities, with each theatre screening the film specially fitted with an expensive sound system which could do justice to Garcia's state of the art mix. It was a grand idea but the band would never see a return on their investment in the film.

Whatever the turbulence of post production, filming of The Grateful Dead Movie saw the band on tremendous form. Perhaps the impending retirement had energized the performances and over the course of two hours, the Dead radiate a brilliance the studio albums could never quite capture. The film opens with an 8min amphetamine-fuelled animated sequence in which a skeletal Uncle Sam goes through various mind-bending adventures before the film begins proper with the band on stage performing an exuberant US Blues. The film's transitions from performance to documentary are expertly done, the band's long improvisations jams give the film the space to feature the other players in the Dead's psychedelic wonderland - the road crew are seen assembling the monstrous Wall of Sound, and there's some amusing stuff with Bill Graham. Most of the non-musical footage is reserved for the Deadheads, the band's unfailingly devotional community of fans - although the Dead don't get it all their own way, as one irate fan vents his anger at the band over the filming of the Winterland shows. Garcia of course loved this bit of impetuous whining and left him in the film - much to the fan's eternal mortification no doubt.

The Grateful Dead may well be the most documented rock band on compact disc, but precious little film footage exists of the halcyon days of the band. The Dead can be seen in a short performance bit in Richard Lester's 1968 film Petulia, and two years before the Winterland film, the band were filmed playing a show in Oregon for the feature length but unreleased Sunshine Daydream. The Dead also appear in the 2003 documentary Festival Express, which chronicles a 1970 train tour across Canada which included Jonis Joplin and The Band among others. The Grateful Dead Movie remains the definitive visual document of the band. Bathed in queasy purples and rosy pinks, the Dead have never looked better, the onstage telepathy between the band members is mesmerizing as they travel the space ways of long extended jams led by Garcia's fluid guitar lines. 1973 is seen as a crossroads in the band's long career, when the Dead left Warner Bros. to launch their own short-lived label. In retrospect the film is a farewell of sorts to classic-era Dead, the band emerged into the second half of the 70's making patchy studio albums and ditching ballrooms for stadiums. Acoustic sets figured more prominently at live shows, perhaps foreshadowed by the end credits of The Grateful Dead Movie which features a time-lapse photography sequence of the crew dismantling the Wall of Sound for the final time. It lasted just 37 shows.

In 2004 US label Monterey Video released The Grateful Dead Movie in a fantastic 2-disc special edition. Disc 1 featured the Movie, while among the extras on disc 2 were 90min of music from the Winterland shows that didn't make the final cut. Monterey's DVD went out of print in 2010 but Shout Factory re-released the same edition on Blu-Ray no less in 2011. In terms of optics, the (A-locked) Blu-Ray is not a major leap forward from the DVD - this is not a criticism of Shout Factory's transfer, The Grateful Dead Movie has always looked a little soft due to the lighting conditions of the original film. Also the 16mm blow-up to 35 gave the image a grainy look. All these imperfections are present on the Blu but if you keep your expectations in check, the 1.85 transfer is quite decent. Audio is where the Shout Factory edition really shines, the Blu features a truly stunning sound mix and far exceeds the Monterey DVD (a more detailed account of the audio options can be read here)

Disc 2 of the Shout Factory Blu-Ray edition comes as a standard def DVD. The biggest extra on the second disc are the 90mins of music that slipped the final cut, including extended jams of Uncle John's Band, The Other One, Weather Report Suite and a particularly fine version of Dark Star. Next up is over an hour's worth of documentary features - A Look Back (28min) features archive and contemporary interview footage of the band (including Bill Graham), while Making of the DVD (14min) focuses on the job of preparing the sound mix. Gary Gutierrez's memorable contribution to the film is showcased in Making of the Animation (16min). The other significant extra on the set is the very interesting, anecdote filled commentary by editors Susan Crutcher and John Nutt. The Grateful Dead Movie is also available as 2-disc DVD edition, or can bought as part of Shout Factory's mammoth 14-DVD Dead boxset All The Years Combine. A UK DVD of The Grateful Dead Movie is out now and a Blu-Ray is promised for September.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Blue Sunshine

Fear, loathing and inexplicable baldness are the order of the day in Jeff Lieberman's second feature film, Blue Sunshine, a terrific chiller from 1978, and quite likely the director's masterpiece. In the film, strange things are happening to ordinary everyday 30-somethings. The symptoms include accelerated hair loss and irritable moods followed by violent and psychotic behaviour. Jerry Zipkin who witnessed an old college friend succumb to the condition (and is mixed up in his accidental death) investigates the phenomena and discovers that the each of the persons involved dabbled with a substance in the late sixties known as Blue Sunshine, a powerful and volatile strain of LSD...

On paper Blue Sunshine sounds like a conventional enough story, playing like a 70's paranoid thriller in the vein of The Parallax View, spliced with the Hitchcockian device of the wrong man forced to clear his name. Thankfully, Blue Sunshine is something far more special, a spiky, fast-paced, loud and determinedly eccentric film, full of off-kilter touches, something akin to one of Cronenberg's early films (especially Rabid) fused with the offbeat rhythm of a Larry Cohen film. Lieberman might have swapped the sinister swamplands of Squirm for the big city sprawl of Blue Sunshine, but the landscape here is no less menacing. Lieberman has a talent for creating images that get under the skin of the audience - in Squirm, a plate of spaghetti was fraught with danger while in Blue Sunshine, the sight of bald heads (foreshadowed by repeated shots of a foreboding full moon in the credit sequence) is, on some subconscious level, deeply unsettling. Perfectly in sync with Lieberman's visuals is Charles Gross' idiosyncratic score using instruments like gongs and bells to add another layer of weirdness to the film.

As with Lieberman's debut, the film inspires any number of readings - on one hand it's a riff on 60's drug paranoia films like Hallucination Generation, (1966) but on a deeper level the film takes a swipe at the betrayed idealism of the children of Aquarius. Unlike Hunter Thompson's drug casualties of the 60's, the permanent cripples and failed seekers, Blue Sunshine's victims have become the kind of well-adjusted people in positions of responsibility their younger selves might have rebelled against, and in a cruel twist of fate the hedonism of youth have caused their well cultivated lives to spectacularly unravel. Interestingly in 1990 Jacob's Ladder trod similar territory with Vietnam vets experiencing disturbing delayed reactions from doses of hallucinogens administered during the war.

Much has been made of Blue Sunshine's leading man, future soft-core erotica director Zalman King (Wild Orchid, Red Shoe Diaries) and his ability or lack of, to carry the film. King is certainly no David Hess, but his performance, uptight, intense and erratic perfectly suits the mood of the film, and whether intentional or not, one is never quite sure if King's Jerry Zipkin is on the level. Worth mentioning that Zalman King displayed a similiar kind of intensity when he appeared as Jesus no less in the very interesting (but hard to see) Passover Plot made just prior to Blue Sunshine in 1976. Also notable among the cast is Robert Walden (the rat-fucker from All the President's Men), and in a nice bit of casting, Mark Goddard, most famous for his role of marooned space cadet Don West on the TV show Lost In Space, plays the politician who a decade earlier was dealing Blue Sunshine to the students at Stanford.

Despite the original negative being destroyed at the lab where it was being stored, Synapse's 2003 DVD of Blue Sunshine was a valiant attempt at restoring the film to what it looked like in theatres in the 70's. And for the most part, the restoration team, working from a 35mm print found in the UK have done a commendable job. The 1.85 anamorphic image looks relatively sharp and has strong colors but the film does look a little worn and grainy. Still, there are worse looking discs in your collection and Synapse have tweaked the image about as far as possible. The audio is much better and makes for an immersive experience. If the image quality was less than perfect, Synapse makes amends with an impressive array of extras - Lieberman is on hand for a director's commentary and returns for the 30min interview Lieberman on Lieberman. Also included is Lieberman's rare 20min short film from 1972, entitled The Ringer (which includes optional commentary), plus there's a short restoration piece, the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. Synapse also issued a second edition of the DVD accompanied by the soundtrack CD. Despite it being a limited edition (a generous 50,000 units!) this 2-disc version has been available for years but copies of this edition are beginning to dry up so if the film has been on your wish list now is the time to grab it. Another DVD edition of Blue Sunshine was issued in 2011 by New Video DVD but the Synapse is the one to pick up.

Friday, 13 July 2012


Jeff Lieberman's 1976 debut is one of the great underrated Horror movies of the 70's, a film which should have a place among the classic drive-in flicks of the decade but instead feels doomed to live out it's existence with the likes of Bug (1975) and Empire of the Ants (1977). In 1999 the film was given the Mystery Science Theatre treatment, an odd choice along side the usual MST3K schlock - yes this film is about a town under siege from carnivorous earth worms but Squirm is made with such style and confidence that it seems a breed apart from most of the other creepy-crawly films of the era.

Nature blows a fuse in the small rural town of Fly Creek when a storm topples electrical lines sending thousands of volts into the moist earth turning the local worm population into ferocious flesh eaters. New York interloper Mick and his flame-haired girlfriend Geri investigate the strange goings on and uncover some locals devoured clean to the bone, but worse is to come as darkness descends on the town and the worms prepare for supper... On the face of it Squirm is a nature vs mankind film in the tradition of The Birds, but dig deeper and the film reveals a sly subversive strain, the paranoia and repressed emotions of an insular community bubbling to the surface in the form of irrational violence. Aside from one spectacularly gruesome Rick Baker effect, the film was originally awarded a PG rating, but Lieberman fills his film with disquieting images which play on our inherent distaste for all things slimy and slithering - a large fat worm is seen spilling out of a chocolate soda, or the famous shot of worms emerging from the perforations of a shower head. There's some striking macro photographic images as well with the worms seen in extreme close-up, Lieberman's nod to the giant bug movies of the 50's perhaps, but a clever device nonetheless emphasizing just how alien these creatures are.

Squirm begins with an introductory scroll reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while it seems the similarities end there story wise, stylistically both films share some common ground, with Lieberman reigning in the splatter, with the emphasis on mood and atmosphere. No doubt American International expected some drive-in fodder when the studio allotted Lieberman just twenty-something days to shoot the film, but the first time director managed to circumvent the budget limitations with some impressive exterior photography, the wild Georgia locations looking damp, off season even sinister, and there's some audacious camerawork employing a huge wide angle lens to depict the worms' point of view. As with the director's subsequent films Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn, Squirm has an eerie, subtle musical score, as well as a very effective sound design which perfectly compliments the visceral images.

Performances in general are better than typically seen in this type of film, helped in no small part by Lieberman’s writing which breathes life into his characters, giving his cast various bits of business to work with – the pot-smoking tomboy younger sister, the mother with the frazzled nerves, the greasy womanising sheriff, and the dim-witted and disgruntled bait boy under the yoke of his father. One suspects that lead actor Don Scardino is a stand-in for the Brooklyn-born director and his fish-out-of-the-water routine is often very funny. It’s a shame Scardino didn’t appear before the camera more often, but he can be seen in He Knows You’re Alone and Cruising, later going on to produce and direct big TV shows like The Cosbys, Law and Order and 30 Rock

MGM’s 2003 R1 DVD (still denied an official release in the UK for no good reason) looks fantastic and is simply the best looking Squirm to date. The 1.85 anamorphic image looks terrific, colors are vibrant, black levels are solid and the picture is pleasingly sharp restoring much detail obliterated on the old Vestron and Orion tapes. The mono sound is fine too. Extras include the theatrical trailer, a TV spot and best of all an excellent and very worthwhile commentary by Jeff Lieberman who discusses every aspect of the production, including what big name stars almost ended up in the cast, and explains how the whole worm infestation was caused by the movie Ocean’s 11 – to find out more, be sure to catch it.

To read more about Squirm and the films of Jeff Lieberman, head over to Jon's excellent and comprehensive career retrospective at the The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Michael Mann on Heat

This post marks the first of a projected series recalling little nuggets gleaned from film maker commentaries. In this first instalment, Michael Mann remembers a primary source of inspiration behind his cops n’ robbers epic Heat...
There was a painting that inspired me about this moment and that painting probably got me interested in making this motion picture of Heat longer than anything else, and it was a painting of a table with a .45 on it and a rear shot of a man standing against a background, and contained within it somebody was involved in some life of aggression and action and yet the contrast was in the mental state because here was a moment of inner loneliness. It didn’t dictate something, instead it posed a question – what is this man thinking, what is he imagining...
Michael Mann, Heat (Warners DVD/Blu-Ray, commentary index point 20:12)

Pacific by Alex Colville, 1967