Terminal Deadheads are the only viewers who might get a contact high from Brent Meeske’s “The End of the Road.” Anyone else will likely find this docu feature about the Grateful Dead’s final concert tour — final because guitarist Jerry Garcia died a month afterward — a major bummer. Denied access to actual performances, filmmakers focus on the self-contained community of transient hangers-on who’ve followed the group, some for decades. Despite neutral p.o.v., pic reps a pretty depressing view of one counterculture on its last fumes. Select rep and campus programmers may bite, but most auds will find warts-and-all depiction as appetizing as week-old bongwater.
Primary footage was shot during the band’s two-month summer ’95 tour, which marked the 30th anniversary of their founding (originally as the Warlocks) in San Francisco’s formative hippie scene. As other ’60s relics faded away, the Dead and their psychedelic boogie mysteriously survived, seemingly immune to change — as did the “dead-icated” loyal core audience, whose ranks swelled again in a surprise early-’90s resurgence.
But if the music and tribal minions remained preserved in a Summer of Love haze, the mood around them had soured. Despite the band’s own pleadings, each show now drew a surrounding sideshow of unlicensed vendors (hawking nitrous oxide as well as the trad tie-dye goods), rootless campers, dragged-along children, pets and drug casualties, many arriving without a ticket or the means to buy one.
They play bongos and recite dire poetry (“Jerry’s my soul bro/and my best friend…”) in each venue’s parking lot when not whining about or goading local police as well as the group’s own security staff.
Despite much vague posturing about the communal spirit and tribal vision of this lifestyle outside the mainstream, it’s hard to swallow the vacuous hedonism on display as truly furthering love and tolerance. These dreadlocked, skinny white kids and acid-fried elders parrot creaky counterculture catch phrases, yet can’t articulate any concrete ideals. They might look, smell, panhandle and O.D. like hippies of yore (or at least a natural-fiber Skid Row), but dropping out to follow the Dead and get stoned on whatever’s available reprises only the dumbest recreational aspects of the 1960s, without the transformative aims or activism.
Among the few Deadheads repeatedly interviewed here, oldest and saddest is barnacled Billy, a 67-year-old grandfather who’s “been on the road since 1968 … I think” and proudly calls younger ‘heads “the flower children of the ’70s!” Sounds like you lost a couple decades there, Billy.
Once the tour moves from West Coast to East, problems intensify. One show is forced to become free once ticketless fans gleefully tear down a security wall. When a similar “riot” occurs in Indiana, drawing police dogs and tear-gas, the concert is canceled, and the band sternly warns “If you don’t have a ticket, don’t come … the spirit of the Grateful Dead is at stake.”
Of course, all those interviewed by the filmmakers pass the blame, whining that their scene has been corrupted by this other element of elusive rowdies who aren’t true Deadheads.
Fears that such public embarrassments might end the Dead’s live performance career prove moot, however, when one month after the turbulent tour’s close, Jerry Garcia dies from heart failure at age 53. Protracted final seg observes fans mourning at San Francisco’s fabled Haight & Ashbury nexus and nearby Golden Gate Park, where surviving band members, Wavy Gravy and Garcia’s daughter offer memorial comments.
Disappointingly, even Garcia’s fellow musicians have nothing very insightful or graceful to say in wrapping their epic roadtrip. “We really had a 30-year school … now we have to show we learned something,” one tells the crowd.
Don’t hold your breath: A graying fan’s plaint, “We don’t know what to do now!,” suggests there are few brain cells, let alone life lessons, left over from this three-decade party.
Though well edited, pic’s lack of structure beyond chronology is wearing after a while, especially in the windy last reel. Narrow focus on lifer Deadheads likewise limits interest, with no time spent contextualizing the Dead’s origins, musical identity, or influence on fanbase-sharing latter-day jam bands such as Phish and the String Cheese Incident.
Lack of concert footage is sorely felt, though soundtrack does sport tracks from former Dead keyboardist Merl Saunders and Garcia’s “Blues From the Rainforest” disc. Vid-shot docu’s tech aspects are solid by verite standards.