For The End of the Road, filmmaker Brent Meeske took a roving handheld camera on tour with The Grateful Dead, roaming the parking lots and campgrounds that made up the Deadhead scene during what wound up being the last three months of Jerry Garcia's life. In attempting to present the scene as realistically as possible, he foregoes narration and tries to show how the Deadhead scene was approaching an end even before Garcia's 1995 death made it official.
The shots of, and interviews with, the Deadheads are completely random for the first ten or fifteen minutes, and are nothing new to anyone who has ever been to a Dead show or had Deadhead friends. We see requisite shots of underweight tripsters with creative dentistry clad in dirty jeans and loose-fitting smocks and smoking weed and holding signs saying "I Need a Miracle" (Deadhead code for "I need a ticket"). A girl with "Dose Me" written on her forehead appears over and over again in montages until you want to scream at the screen, "For God's sake, someone dose her already!"
Several segments determined to deify the Deadheads come off as just silly to those who know better. In a particularly ridiculous moment, one Deadhead earnestly reads an anti drunk-driving poem. Every true Deadhead I ever knew has at least one story of trying to drive home from a Dead show while tripping on acid. Anti-inebriation poster children they aren't.
About a third of the way in we see the first signs of trouble -- the cops are hassling the fans, man, and all is not well in Mellowville. But while many of the Deadheads paint the cops as villains, it is often they who actually provoke the trouble. One scene shows the police shutting down a vendor selling balloons full of nitrous oxide for $5 a pop. A few Deadheads lament the evil of the nitrous vendor ruining the scene, while others gather like pit bulls in a feeding frenzy around a nitrous tube.
Here, finally, we have the point of the film -- the sanctity of the old Dead scene of peace, love, and harmony, suddenly being spoiled by those who don't get it, those who seek the high without the love, the thrill without the brotherhood. Later in the film a fence is torn down at a sold-out show by a 3,000-person mob trying to make its own miracle, causing the first ever cancellation in Grateful Dead history, and a severe crisis in the Deadhead universe (one surreal voiceover reads a letter from the band members to the fans, urging "pressure on people to follow the rules," an un-Dead sentiment if ever there was one).
But even once the point is established, it is too often interrupted by random acts of Deadness, all-too-brief portrayals of Dead fans doing not much of anything but being Dead fans. Some are very stoned, many don't know what day it is, and others seem to have no lives off the road, none of which is news to anyone even remotely exposed to the Dead phenomenon. After countless interviews and montages of hippie after hippie, it's all just boring (see also the Phish movie Bittersweet Motel).
Points of tension are welcome, but even the altercations with the cops, for the most part, are innocuous. One segment where a Deadhead laments that the police won't let him sell beer anymore is ridiculous. The Deadhead complains how his finger was caught in his cooler and the cop drags it along, then shows the camera a supposed scratch on his finger that is barely visible. At this point you want to shake him and scream, "Stop whining about the cops! Just be glad you're not Rodney King!"
One interview at least threatens to become interesting. An older uncle and nephew discuss how they had been shunned by the rest of their family for living this lifestyle. The uncle turns to the camera and says, "People don't realize -- we are America." At that moment, it's apparent that a more in-depth telling of this family's story might have been a more interesting film. What leads someone to this life, how it affects those around them, and what actually happened to them when the party ended would have been much more engaging than lots of anonymous faces we never get to know simply lamenting the end of the party.
The movie's one insider interview, filmed after Garcia's death with former Garcia collaborator Merl Saunders, talks about how special Jerry was, but never addresses the subject of the fans. Isn't that the subject of this movie? And why no interviews with the band about the Deadheads? Guitarist Bob Weir said in a recent interview that the band's impression of many of the hardcore Deadheads was a fairly negative one. Surely, an interview of this sort would have added an interesting additional perspective to the film.
Adding to the tedium is the soundtrack, the Garcia/Saunders album Blues from the Rainforest, which is ethereal, new age pabulum at its dullest. All the talk of how Godlike the Dead were had me aching for an actual Grateful Dead song, while instead we are subjected to an hour and a half of what sounded like whales.
Ultimately, The End of the Road attempts to recreate the feel of the Dead touring experience, and in that it succeeded. So much so that the film is aimless, much like its subjects.
No dose for you!