One kid came from California, with his banjo and missing a finger; the other drove from New Jersey with his mandolin. Bill Monroe was the main attraction at the Sunset Park, Pennsylvania, bluegrass festival in 1964, and that’s where Jerry Garcia first met David Grisman. Between sets they picked in the parking lot. This was before anyone would imagine Garcia as Captain of the Grateful Dead, before all the tie-dyed years of touring—the heroin, money, stroke(s), four wives, and the cheeseburgers—when they were just two boys who liked playing bluegrass.
Grateful Dawg, the new documentary produced and directed by Grisman’s daughter, Gillian, magnifies that simple relationship. Nothing more. It’s like an 80-minute flip through the Grisman family photo album—complete with live, unreleased soundtrack—starring Jerry Garcia as long-lost Uncle, taking a break from international cult fame and smoking cigarettes in front of the kids in customary black T-shirt and sweats. (They buried him in that uniform, you know.)
David’s one request to Gillian was that the songs be played in their entirety—nothing cut, chopped, or spliced. Which means good news for Dead and Dawg Purists, and, for everyone else, a sleepy ride through long, woolly concert takes, as well as onerous (often repetitive) interviews with the band.
If you’re wondering what Garcia looks like in a suit, tacked to the end of the documentary is an unreleased video for “The Thrill Is Gone,” a swank montage that captures almost every cliché of the roaring ’20s. Flappers in short skirts. Bartenders pouring illegal booze. A mysterious card dealer—and on stage, two boys who met in a dusty Pennsylvania parking lot, dressed in black with sunglasses and beards, still playing bluegrass.