Brent Meeske’s The End of the Road is the Citizen Kane of parking-lot fan docs. Confronting the elephant in the rental rack of that burgeoning subgenre, Meeske embarked in 1995 on a planned three-year long, dull trip with the Grateful Dead and its Heads. Fandom is fertile ground for critics exploring the relationship between art and commerce, artist and audience, pleasure and personality, but Deadheads took that bond to a whole new level, erasing their ties to the straight world and erecting a new one. Fortunately for low-budget filmmakers, they built their cities near major roadways.
The band itself is barely visible here. For most of the film’s 99 minutes, hirsute sun-casualties frolic on the tarmac, orating, vending, twirling, inhaling, comparing garb and histories, casting for miracles, raising toddlers. Meeske may have set out only to make Stupid Fucking Hippies: Behind the Music, but history imposed a subtext. In their final years the Dead lost control of the bus, as the scene became more tailgate party than festival. On-screen, fault lines are visible inside the camp; subsistence-level crafts dealers resent the nitrous pushers who get the kids fucked up and then “take their $4000 to the Hyatt Regency for a steak dinner.” After rioting Hoosiers force the band to cancel—a first in their 30-year history—a fed-up Head does brisk business selling “Gatecrashers Suck!” T-shirts at cost, and the Dead themselves issue a statement asking fans to “think of [the cops] as us.” Meeske cannily edits his 44 hours of footage to maximize the peace officers’ screen time, using audio from blissed-out drum circles to underline the growing sense of anxiety. But just when things start to get interesting, Jerry croaks. Meeske is left faithfully recording the flatulent wake (Lesh: “Now he is done with becoming; now he is being”). It’s a bummer, because there’s probably a great feature lurking in his tapes. It’ll just take a few more blind men to reveal that particular pachyderm.