Why the Music of the Grateful Dead Makes the Perfect Soundtrack for Action Sports

"Fire On The Mountain" director Chris Benchetler fills us in on his new documentary

‘Fire On The Mountain’ is a visual journey blending action sports, art, and music into a film inspired by the Grateful Dead’s improvisational tapestry.
"Fire On The Mountain" is a visual journey blending action sports, art, and music. (Aaron Blatt)

When skier and filmmaker Chris Benchetler was brainstorming names for someone to narrate his new action-sports film featuring the music of the Grateful Dead, there was one that kept popping up due to the nature of the movie’s soundtrack: Bill Walton.

Walton, a confirmed Deadhead, seemed like the perfect person to bring aboard to narrate Benchetler’s Fire On The Mountain as the 27-minute film is set to seven tracks selected from the Grateful Dead’s massive vault of recordings by official band archivist David Lemieux.

Luckily for Benchetler, he actually had the retired NBA star’s email address as the two had gone road biking some years ago. “I didn’t expect him to remember me at all but I just hit him up and explained my passion for the Dead and for what we were doing,” Benchetler tells InsideHook.

Finding Benchetler’s note in his inbox over the summer, Walton gave it a read.

“Chris described his love of life, sport, nature, art, his dreams, passion, purpose, and how music brings it all together — particularly the music of the Grateful Dead,” Walton says of Benchetler’s email. “He wisely added at the end that he was already in touch with David Lemieux, the current archivist of the Dead’s treasure vault. After a couple of verifying and clarifying phone calls, I was in.”

That explains Walton’s involvement in the project (which is available to stream worldwide today). What about Benchetler’s?

“I pitched this movie concept I’ve kind of had in the back of my mind since I did this project Afterglow with Sweetgrass,” he says. “We skied at night up in Alaska and I’ve never wanted to just recreate that but I definitely wanted to take inspiration and bring a night scene to my home in Mammoth, California. Also, [pro surfer] Rob Machado and I have become pretty close friends and we were talking a ski and surf collaboration project to try and get him in the snow a bit more and get me into the surf. And then selfishly I love the Grateful Dead’s music. So I kind of just blended all these ideas together. So I pitched it to Warner Music and they were into it.”

"Fire On The Mountain" is a visual journey blending action sports, art, and music.
“Fire On The Mountain” is a visual journey blending action sports, art, and music. (Peter Morning)

Shot on location in sea and snow in Mammoth, the Sierras, the Telos Islands and the North Pole, Fire on the Mountain features Machado and Benchetler as well as snowboarders Jeremy Jones, Danny Davis and Kimmy Fasani, and skier Michelle Parker.

In addition to most of the athletes in the film being fans of the band, the thread that ties the Dead’s music to the world of action sports that’s on display in Fire on the Mountain is the theme of improvisation.

“The Grateful Dead’s music very much lends itself to skiing and snowboarding and surfing,” Benchetler says. “They never play the same song twice. They just take that moment in time and space and let the jam work itself out which is exactly how we approach mountains and waves. So that’s kind of the parallel I wanted to draw with that. And that was the inspiration for using their music. I was never trying to make a Grateful Dead documentary, I was just making an art piece of all the things that inspire me.”

In addition to featuring the music of the Grateful Dead, some of the visuals that are often associated with the band like skeletons and psychedelic lights also make appearances.

"Fire On The Mountain"
“Fire On The Mountain” is a visual journey blending action sports, art, and music. (Rob Machado)

“Skeletons are a big part of the Dead’s image,” Benchetler says. “And so using lights and the psychedelic colors, I wanted to create a very colorful atmosphere with skeletons. It’s kind of like the ultimate dreamscape. Skeletons dancing under the moonlight. So the skeletons represent the Grateful Dead and the LEDs were so rad looking, I just wanted to build on that and create something new.”

Though the film does feature some animation and a few effects which were added during the post-production process, 99 percent of what is on display in the film is what Benchetler and his team saw while they were filming it.

“We added some shooting stars and other subtle subtleties just to make it a little more trippy, but it’s almost entirely what it actually looked like,” he says. “We had this pinwheel with different gel colors that someone was manually spinning so the colors changed throughout the shot. The film has a couple of random little additions, but the vast majority of it is what it actually looked like.”

"Fire On The Mountain" is a visual journey blending action sports, art, and music.
“Fire On The Mountain” is a visual journey blending action sports, art, and music. (Aaron Blatt)

To see how it turned out, head to Teton Gravity Research’s YouTube channel and stream Fire On The Mountain.

“I poured my heart and soul into it,” Benchetler says of his film. “That’s kind of how the Dead community operates. I’m just trying to create a visual artistic journey. I’m not trying to change the world of skiing or snowboarding or surfing. I’m just passionate about something and like anyone creating art, I had something in my mind and I wanted to express it.”

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