Dead on arrival

Circumstances surrounding the Deadhead documentary Tie-Died reveal the film's mistaken premise

Filmmakers Andrew Behar, Sara Sackner, and their collaborators sure had their work cut out for them when they decided to follow the Grateful Dead and their fans around the country last year and make a film about that particular subculture.

The shoot itself yielded some interesting material, including details about the Dead cult's history and traditions, the merchandising explosion that some believe has hopelessly commercialized the cult, the government's fearsome crackdown on casual drug-using fans, and schisms between various Deadhead factions that fracture their shared utopian ideals.

Unfortunately, it all adds up to naught because of a nasty legal skirmish last year between the filmmakers and the lawyers of the Dead. The near-sexagenarian hippie heroes forbade Behar, Sackner, and company to use either songs or images of the group within the context of their film. Then, adding insult to injury, the moviemakers were told that their projected initial title for the picture, Deadheads, constituted copyright infringement.

Demonstrating admirable grit and resourcefulness, the frustrated artists retitled their project Tie-Died: Rock 'n' Roll's Most Deadicated Fans and scored it with Dead-esque music by mostly unknown musicians. And intriguingly enough, the absence of official Dead input only emphasizes the subculture's almost freakishly independent nature. As various interviewees make crystal-clear, this traveling society of hippies, dropouts, dreamers, schemers, and wannabes is so self-contained and self-perpetuating that it might very well continue to exist (albeit in an altered form) if the Grateful Dead stopped touring someday.

The film's numerous structural problems (an overreliance on expositional interviews, a fondness for bland music video montages, a tendency to repeat the same vague points over and over and over) probably won't affect the picture's long-term viability. A movie like this has a built-in audience--one that will probably be so excited by the prospect of seeing their lifestyle represented onscreen that they'll neglect to ask a key question: doesn't the astonishingly rude, coldhearted, and hypocritical behavior of the band and its minions call the very ideological foundation of the Deadhead cult into question? Knowing about the legal troubles surrounding the movie's production, it's impossible to sit there listening to various fans swoon over how much they love the Dead and how much the Dead loves them. If the band appreciates their loyal supporters so much, why did their attorneys, advisers, and bean counters conspire to screw the filmmakers who sought to immortalize them?

Of course, there's a possibility that if I were a Deadhead, I might be too supernaturally laid-back and zoned out to fret very much over these issues. But I tend to think that if I discovered the supposedly generous, appreciative icons I'd devoted my life to adoring would rather go to court than give their blessing to some low-budget moviemakers who wanted to tell my story, I'd be disillusioned and pissed off.

In that light, it's hard to take Tie-Died as anything more than a depressing, delusional fantasy by a group of na•ve moviemakers who got the rug yanked out from under them by the very people they admired.

--Matt Zoller Seitz

Tie-Died screens Saturday, April 22 at 9:30 p.m.

 
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