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Happy Together

Fiendship in thriller Domestic Disturbance; friendship in documentary Grateful Dawg.


It's the dead of night, and Frank Morrison, father and boat-builder, stands at the end of a pier, staring out at the sea. If the water provides Frank with any answers, they are ones he already knows: His ex's new husband, his son's new stepfather, is a bad, bad man. What Frank can't seem to see -- and obviously what the makers of the thriller Domestic Disturbance didn't intend -- is that this villain is quite the wuss. But more on that later

John Travolta stars as Frank, a plain guy enjoying the simple pleasures of small-town life in coastal Maine. As one of the last builders of wooden boats, he takes pride in craftsmanship while treading water financially. He's divorced, but he gets along fine enough with his ex, Susan (Teri Polo), and really great with his 12-year-old son Danny (Matt O'Leary). The most troubling aspect of Frank's life is when Danny acts out, the episodes timed to register frustration with his homelife, usually ending up at the police station. One outburst comes days before Susan's marriage to Rick (Vince Vaughn). Everybody loves Rick, a newcomer already named the town's man of the year and a constant flesh-presser pumping money into the local economy. Everybody loves Rick, that is, except for Danny (who wants his parents back together), Frank (who wants his son to have one father), and the just-appeared Ray (played by Steve Buscemi, who wants the money Rick stole from him).

Danny then pulls the daddy-of-them-all stunt. He claims that Rick murdered somebody. He swears he saw it, and he did see it. But no one believes him, given his past antics, and even he changes his tune after stepfather Rick clutches his neck and suggests that maybe something truly awful will happen to dear old real dad unless the kid shuts up. And so Frank stands out on that pier, puzzled by his son's behavior, until he figures it out.

According to the press notes for Domestic Disturbance, the story was pitched to screenwriter Lewis Colick by his neighbor. What this means, of course, is that you should stay away from your neighbors. The plotline is rather transparent -- it's never a question of what will happen but how, and the how is not that compelling. What is interesting is the idea of the wicked stepfather, though Vaughn's delicate performance as Rick is never truly menacing. Sure, he can push around a 12-year-old pretty good, but how tough can a guy who tucks in his sweaters be? -- Susan Ellis

In 1964, a young banjoist, Jerry Garcia, approached an equally young mandolinist, David Grisman, outside of a Pennsylvania folk-music venue called Sunset Park. Both were out picking during the intermission of a show by father of bluegrass Bill Monroe. Garcia had driven from San Francisco, Grisman from New Jersey. As both were amateur musicologists, their shared affinity for music of all genres, especially "old-timey" and bluegrass, sealed their friendship as much as the pleasure of swapping licks and turning each other on to various musical arcana did.

It is their relationship which Grateful Dawg, an 80-minute documentary directed by Grisman's daughter Gillian, celebrates. Some might prematurely assume that this film is another shameful vanity piece, a silly, Grateful Dead-centric touting of Garcia as "Gawd," but the film is so down-home and intimate, so lovingly assembled, its credibility is secured. Even viewers unaware of the Garcia/Grisman connection should enjoy this story of two friends and their love of music.

The "Grateful Dawg" of the title is a song written by the duo which reflects both of their musical approaches: the Garcia sound of the Dead, which he brought to acoustic as well as electric guitar, and Grisman's "dawg" style of bluegrass seasoned with jazz, Latin, gypsy, and swing. "Dawg" was the nickname Garcia gave Grisman when the two were involved in the bluegrass-revivalist band Old & In the Way with guitarist Peter "Panama Red" Rowan, fiddler Vassar "Clamp" Clements of Bill Monroe's band, and John "Mule" Kahn on the double bass. Garcia, who played banjo in the band, called himself "Spud." Old & In the Way, a live album released in 1973, is one of the best-selling bluegrass albums ever and has done wonders for the music, exposing generations to its unique sound and importance as an original American genre.

After the short-lived Old & In the Way, Garcia and Grisman drifted apart until 1987, when the two reunited while doing session work. It was this reunion which sparked another burst of creativity and resulted in the later recordings Shady Grove, The Pizza Tapes, So What, Not For Kids Only, and an eponymous disc, all with the rhythm section of the David Grisman Quintet, bassist Jim Kerwin and percussionist/fiddler Joe Craven, providing accompaniment. Much of the music from these recordings is featured in Grateful Dawg, which stands alone among musical documentaries for the fact that each song is presented uninterrupted, usually mixing live and studio footage, with interviews thrown in the mix while the songs continue in the background. Even the 16-minute, solo-heavy "Arabia" is presented in full.

Although a couple of the interviewees border on weepiness when discussing the loss of Garcia in 1995, the film is marked by a generally steady hand. While illuminating the fruitful relationship of two of the 20th century's most visible musical pioneers, Grateful Dawg avoids altogether the stigma of the adoring hippie's take on these two "beards of a feather."

-- Jeremy Spencer

Grateful Dawg opens in Memphis later this month.

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