Without the Grateful Dead, there'd be no Deadheads--the veteran band's intensely loyal following that is one of America's most intriguing counter-cultures.
But can you have a film about the Deadheads without the Grateful Dead?
That's what faced the filmmakers behind "Tie-Died: Rock 'n' Roll's Most Deadicated Fans," a documentary about the band's followers that premieres tonight at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
When they were preparing to start filming the colorful scenes surrounding the Dead's 1994 summer tour, the filmmakers received no response to requests for the band's involvement. After filming, they took a rough cut to the Dead's San Rafael headquarters and showed it to staff members--who loved it.
But when they got home to Ojai, waiting for them was a letter from the Dead's management refusing permission to use any music, imagery, copyrights or trademarks, and stating sternly that such use would result in legal action. A letter was also sent to Sundance director Harold Kant from the band's law offices--Legally Dead--demanding that the festival not screen the film if it contained any of the Dead's "intellectual property."
The filmmakers were even forced to change the film's title--it was originally called "Dead Heads"--after being informed that the group owns the phrase.
Call it a Deadlock.
"We're not trying to make trouble," says Andy Behar, the film's director. "The film isn't about the Grateful Dead at all. It's about this world that's evolved around them."
And so it is. "Tie-Died" (a play on the hippie-era fashions still favored by Deadheads) consists entirely of interviews with some of the thousands of Dead loyalists who follow the band from concert to concert--ranging from doctors to spaced-out drifters--and footage of the goings-on in the villages that sprout up in parking lots and spontaneous campgrounds surrounding the band's concert sites. In recent years, as problems associated with Deadheads have increased, the band has sought to distance itself from the traveling circus.
"I learned an awful lot about choices people make in their lives," says Behar, 37, who directed the acclaimed 1992 documentary "Painting the Town" about Richard Osterweil, a man who has made party-crashing into an art form. "It's really a Zen state of mind out there."
Behar, who was only a casual Dead fan before being hired by producers Marsha Oglesby and James Deutch, addresses a variety of Deadhead issues--from spirituality to drugs to taking children on the road. But it's all done without a single shot of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir or other members of the Dead, nor a single lick of the band's music. In place of five Dead songs the producers wished to use, music is largely provided by Deadheads themselves, recorded live in the parking lots.
"Jerry has commented, 'We didn't invent the Deadheads, they invented themselves,' " says band spokesman Dennis McNally, explaining the group's ambivalence to the film project. "Interest in the band as a cinematic project has ranged from almost every high school kid who ever got a video camera to supremely respected filmmakers. Since no one has the energy to watch everybody's film, the fair thing to do is for the band to turn it over to the staff to say the answer is 'No.' "
The hard line against allowing use of music or trademarks, McNally says, is a legal necessity.
"Long ago the Grateful Dead was told by various judges that if the band did not defend its copyrights, the courts wouldn't either. So we do so even in instances where we might otherwise be inclined to let it slide."
The Dead, in fact, has a long history of steering clear of outside film projects and licensing offers, preferring to retain control of those matters itself. The group refused to allow footage of its performances to appear in both the "Monterey Pop" and original "Woodstock" concert films (the Woodstock performance, the band felt, was not up to snuff), although it made its own film, 1977's "The Grateful Dead Movie," which includes some discussion of the Deadhead phenomenon.
And McNally only recalls one instance in which the band gave permission for a song to be used in a movie: Director Peter Bogdanovich talked Garcia into allowing the elegiac "Ripple" to be played in a key scene in "Mask," the 1985 drama starring Cher and Eric Stoltz.
Meanwhile, the Dead has aggressively pursued those who have appropriated its various logo designs--such as the skull and roses motif and the colorful dancing bears--for unauthorized T-shirts and other items.
To some, this business-like pattern runs counter to the band's vaunted ties with the Summer of Love communalism from which it sprang. After all, the Dead allows fans to tape its concerts.
McNally explains that the taping is strictly meant for personal, not-for-profit use. The other copyright and licensing matters are a very complex matter that the band prefers to sidestep altogether.
"If you stick one toe in the water, then you're going to fall in," McNally says. "And the band doesn't want to swim."
One ironic twist: Unable to use Dead logos, the filmmakers commissioned noted artist John Naza to create their own skull and roses variation. A Dead staff member saw it and liked it, and asked if the Dead could buy it.
The filmmakers refused . . . so the Dead has now commissioned Naza to do a new one for them.