‘Jerry: The Movie’: A broken angel sings
November 29, 2012
In the last decade of his life, maybe more, Jerry Garcia could be a snarling, contrarian, immobile s.o.b., unable even to hold up his end onstage. “It was very distressing to see Jerry fall apart. It seemed like the negation of everything we’d ever worked for,” bassist Phil Lesh said in Nick Paumgarten’s noteworthy article on the Grateful Dead in the current issue of The New Yorker.
Which was one of the reasons filmmaker Malcolm Leo didn’t have the highest of expectations when Garcia sat down for a taped interview in December 1987. Another reason was that Leo’s session with Garcia was intended to be a short piece, part of Rolling Stone magazine’s 20th anniversary TV show.
But on this day, Garcia showed no ill effects of the diabetic coma that had nearly killed him a year earlier. Garcia and the Dead were coming off a year, 1987, marked not only by consistently good concerts but also by a hit album, “In the Dark,” and the Dead’s only Top 40 hit, “Touch of Grey.” It was apparent immediately that Garcia was at his best.
“I filmed a little bit of Jerry and he was so great. He was charming, up,” said Leo, a 68-year-old whose work as a director included the 1981 documentary “This Is Elvis” and 1985’s “The Beach Boys: An American Band,” from his home in the Hollywood Hills. “I said, Let’s light Jerry, put up a backdrop and do this for history. I spent the whole afternoon with him at the Dead’s facility in San Rafael.”
Even with the recovery of Garcia’s health and the popularity of the Dead, Leo believes what really brought out the articulate, inquisitive and agreeable side of Garcia that day was a stool, provided by Leo to prevent his subject from slouching. “It kept him perky,” Leo said, adding that the only request Garcia turned down was to allow the crew to use make-up on him. With his body properly propped, Garcia talked about his youth in San Francisco and the Santa Cruz mountains, being exposed to the Grand Ole Opry, presidential politics, the music business, Janis Joplin and punk rock.
“Jerry was extraordinary. For me, it was like being a kid in a candy store,” said Leo, a moderate Dead fan who had seen the band a few times – in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival, a year later at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, and in 1986 at a Jerry Garcia Band show at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, where Leo was introduced to Garcia by the band’s drummer, David Kemper.
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It was only a short snippet of the interview that was used for the TV special, but Leo is aiming to get much more of the footage out in the world. Leo is working on a documentary, “Jerry: The Movie,” with the interview – which happened to be shot on the highest quality 16mm film available at the time, which Leo now calls “a godsend” – as the centerpiece. Leo is seeking funding through a Kickstarter campaign; details of the project, including a video segment from the interview, are available at jerrythemovie.com.
Leo suspects that there is a wider audience for the film than only those who know most everything about Garcia already – his days in art school, the names of his guitars, which finger he was missing a substantial part of (right middle, lost in a wood-chopping incident when he was 4).
“His persona has an appeal to Deadheads, people who followed the band,” Leo said. “But there’s a sense of, Who was this person? As time has passed, we’ve seen him intertwined with the Beats, Kesey, then the fan base. Nobody really knew Elvis and maybe nobody really knows Jerry. As a filmmaker, maybe I can bring that past into the film.”
Leo’s project is drawing assistance from the Garcia family, who is providing home movies and memorabilia, and Justin Kreutzmann, the son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann who has made several Dead-related videos. He also has access to extensive concert footage, some of which hasn’t been seen by the public. Leo is hoping to film commentary by some of Garcia’s contemporaries, including Bob Dylan and Pete Townsend, who played some with Garcia, and Elvis Costello, an admirer who occasionally covers Garcia’s songs.
But Leo says the last thing he wants to make is a documentary loaded with talking-head commentary. Leo noted that Garcia seemed to be aware, as he was being filmed, that he was giving an interview that would be preserved.
“You could tell he knew we were getting this for history’s sake,” Leo said. “There were no limits on areas to discuss. He picked up on the fact that he was telling his story, that we wanted him to address the camera as if he was talking to people one on one.”
Leo aims for a fall 2013 release for “Jerry: The Movie.” Leo doesn’t expect the movie to pump up the Garcia legend, but instead to bring the human figure closer to earth.
“This is about a guy who’s become almost mythic,” he said. “But I don’t want to make a mythic film. Jerry was a guy who bonded with people one on one, and also had an ability to communicate with a mass of people. His persona is obviously big enough for a film.”