By Madeline Barry / New York City
Jerry Garcia, the leader of the Grateful Dead, the beloved rock and roll band known for its super-charged shows, extended improvisational jams, and zealously dedicated fans known as “Deadheads', may have died 25 years ago, but he remains a countercultural deity. Thus when actor Jonah Hill announced on Instagram that he would be playing Garcia in a new Grateful Dead biopic directed by Martin Scorsese for Apple TV+, scores of fans rushed to the Internet to voice and meme their opinions.
There were no shortage of places to do that. On Instagram alone, there are thousands of accounts dedicated to the Grateful Dead. Many of these are humor-based, sharing a variety of funny memes, photos, and videos on their pages; while others are virtual museums that archive and share moments from the band’s wild history.
Hill’s announcement about the forthcoming film was immediately reposted on a number of these Grateful Dead-themed sites. When the account “MusicNeverStopped” (named for the Grateful Dead song) shared Hill’s post on their page, some followers digitally raged at the idea of Hill playing Garcia. One angry user commented, “Leave [Garcia’s] legacy alone, we don’t need a Hollywood blockbuster to tell his story.” One displeased user simply stated, “This makes me uncomfortable.”
Similarly, when another meme account, “IHavePhisues” (an Instagram page named after the rock band Phish, who many believe carry on the legacy of the Grateful Dead because of their jam-fueled songs and immersive live show experience) alerted their followers to the biopic, Deadheads did not hold back. “Don’t really get this whole project though…” one confused follower wrote, “what’s the story going to be? There was no real drama with the Dead like with The Doors or Freddie Mercury or Elton John. Jerry wasn’t some egomaniac dictator. There was fun and excessive drug use, but never slimy. There was a couple of deaths before Jerry, but not so dramatic to make a movie out of. Or big break ups, etc. There’s no air of mystique like around Dylan where they made that I’m Not There movie. Whole project seems forced.”
This sentiment is shared by many devotees, who believe a project about the band, and specifically Garcia’s life, would not make for an authentic cinematic experience, in the way films like Bohemian Rhapsody did with Queen’s Freddie Mercury.
Deadheads are notoriously protective of Garcia and tend to view him as a rock god or prophet. In 2015 a few surviving members of the Grateful Dead banded together to revive the music of the Dead in the form of a new group that they called Dead & Company. John Mayer was selected to fill Garcia’s role. When he was introduced as the new frontman, Mayer received plenty of flack. I’ll admit it—even I was wary.
But Dead & Company has been hugely successful. Between 2015-2019, the band grossed over $200 million, according to the website Live for Live Music. There’s a good bit of déjà vu happening. The Scorcese project is backed by surviving members of the Grateful Dead Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kretuzmann, who are signed up to be executive producers.
There are of course many people who are more optimistic about the biopic because they trust famed director. “Seems like an effort bound to disappoint to portray the man in a film. I mean it’s Jerry, he was so unique, powerful and humble that a movie about him doesn’t feel right. But it is Scorsese, which means it could be a quality movie” one user commented in his MusicNeverStopped post.
Scorsese is hardly new to the music documentary world. He is the man responsible for directing The Last Waltz, which documented The Band’s star-studded final performance in 1976; No Direction Home, the Bob Dylan documentary released in 2005; “The Rolling Stone’s” 2008 concert film Shine a Light; and the 2011 documentary about George Harrison, George Harrison: Living in a Material World. Scorsese has also dipped his toe in the Grateful Dead pool before. He was an executive producer of the 2017 project Long Strange Trip directed by Amir Bar-Lev, which was a six-part miniseries that documented the history of the band from its beginnings in San Francisco in the mid-1960’s until Jerry’s death in 1995.
The industry feedback about Hill’s news was overwhelmingly positive online. A number of supporters applauded his upcoming role, including actor David Krumholtz, who is known for his roles on the CBS show Numb3rs, HBO’s The Deuce, and the Harold and Kumar and Santa Clause franchises. Krumholtz enthused, “as a massive Deadhead, I’m thrilled that this is happening! Congrats! Jerry was celestial.” Mike Gordon, bassist of Phish also expressed his support with the clapping hands emoji, and Monet Weir, daughter of the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir ‘liked’ the Instagram post.
Hill and Scorsese are not strangers. The pair worked together on The Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 movie that gave Hill his second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Deadline reports “The two have been looking for something to work on together ever since, and the opportunity to play a rock legend like Garcia was too good for Hill to pass up.” There is no news as to when the biopic will begin filming, but in the meantime perhaps Dead & Company’s Jerry Garcia fill-in Mayer can give Hill some advice.
Madeline Barry is a junior high school teacher at the Ronald Edmonds Learning Center in Brooklyn, New York. Listening to music and writing for The Insider has kept her semi-sane during the pandemic.