The story of Jerry Garcia’s life before he became the heart of the Grateful Dead is heading to the silver screen for the first time. Director Amir Bar-Lev and his team of producers have announced plans to turn Robert Greenfield’s Dark Star: An Oral Biography on Jerry Garcia into a big-screen biopic. Like the film Nowhere Boy, which chronicles John Lennon’s adolescence prior to joining the Beatles, this movie will focus on Garcia’s early life before he became the figurehead of the legendary jam band. “I don’t think Jerry is easily understood. I think he’s a complex human being,” Greenfield tells Rolling Stone. “After a certain point, everyone had their own vision of Jerry. This film is about who he really was before people made him what they wanted him to be. I think a lot of that has been lost in the legend and the myth that has grown since his death.”
Greenfield says the movie ends when Garcia leaves to join the Dead, but it captures the period when the guitarist was working in coffee shops and playing bluegrass, newly married with a young daughter. Likening it to Backbeat, the film about the young Beatles, Greenfield says, “All the seeds of his life and the formative influences that came through his music with the Dead everything is there, the childhood, the death of his father, the way he grew up. You see him at the crossroads of his life.” He adds that production could begin as early as next year.
Greenfield, a Rolling Stone contributor, is well versed in Haight-Ashbury psychedelia, having cowritten Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out and written Timothy Leary: A Biography. Dark Star charts Garcia’s life via interviews with his friends, family and bandmates. Since the film will take place prior to Garcia’s Dead days, Greenfield said it’s unlikely the film will feature the band’s music, opting instead for a soundtrack filled with “bluegrass, folk ballads and jugband music” that was influential at the time. Bob Weir and songwriter Robert Hunter will be portrayed in the film.
“This picture will be psychedelic in the best sense,” Greenfield says, explaining that the storytelling will not be completely linear. The film’s title has not yet been officially announced, but Greenfield tells RS the film will be titled Dark Star. “The reason we’re focusing on this part of his life is [he was] an artist struggling to find himself. During the acid revolution, when he began using LSD, it changed the way he played his music,” Greenfield says. “He did things on electric guitar that weren’t done before not because he had taken LSD but because of all the influences he absorbed throughout his life. It’s an accident of history and where he was in time.”
Screenwriter Topper Lilien, whose last big-screen writing credit was 2000’s live-action Dungeons & Dragons, will pen the script. Bar-Lev is a noted documentary director and producer who previously worked on the post-Katrina New Orleans doc Trouble the Water as co-producer and more recently The Tillman Story as director. “Amir is a remarkable guy. He knows the Dead very well,” Greenfield tells RS. “He knows their music. He is a documentary filmmaker. He’s got the right sensibility; he really gets what the piece is about and what Jerry is about. He certainly understands what the Dead were about. He strikes me as a really good choice.”