directed by Gillian Grisman with David Grisman and Jerry Garcia runs Nov. 2-8 at Varsity
OSTENSIBLY THE STORY of mandolin master David Grisman's musical collaborations with the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dawg often comes across as a paean to Garcia with a conveniently narrow, familial focus. (It's directed by Grisman's daughter, Gillian.) Dawg traces their relationship from first meeting at a 1964 Bill Monroe concert to sessions conducted shortly before Garcia's death in 1995, relying on photos, live footage, and testimonials to frame the laudatory portrait. Interviews and commentary often push the film toward hagiography; no mention is made of the demons that fueled Garcia's demise. Fortunately, the duo's music—culled from stage performances, studio sessions, and home movies—makes up the bulk of the short 81-minute documentary.
The musical footage covers Grisman-Garcia projects from the mid-'70s to the early '90s, offering material surely seen previously by only a select few. Earlier clips are mainly remnants of Old and in the Way, the side group Garcia formed in 1973 as an outlet for playing traditional bluegrass music. The acoustic standard "Pig in a Pen" comes from this period and clearly indicates the duo's chemistry—despite the song's thorough, faithful reworking.
The majority of Dawg's other tunes are taken from 1991 to 1993, the pair's busiest period. "Sitting Here in Limbo" and "Dawg's Waltz" are perhaps most representative of Grisman and Garcia's signature brand of gentle picking, but several examples of their more thematic explorations are also presented. Among these are the maritime standard "Off to the Sea Once More," the children's tune "Jenny Jenkins," and the 16-minute saga "Arabia." The "Arabia" sequence is the movie's most ambitious moment and severest test of its commitment to present all of the musical numbers in their entirety. (Its accompanying video hodgepodge of studio and concert footage narrowly, gracefully escapes tedium.) Dawg's latter stages will please enthusiasts, however, with home videos of the two joking and playing in Grisman's living room, where the several layers of their bond are detailed in touching fashion.
Dawg is hardly documentary filmmaking at its finest. The editing is clumsy and the narration highly repetitive (we're told ad nauseam that Garcia was the improviser of the duo, Grisman the structured one). Finally, director Grisman clearly had trouble deciding how and when to bring her movie to a close. Fans of the music, however, will surely forgive the picture's flaws. Much like a Grisman-Garcia composition, Dawg is a gently meandering experience.