Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2017, USA, 4 hours
World premiere at the Sundance Film Festival
Now in theaters and on Amazon
Amir Bar-Lev’s marathon documentary about the Grateful Dead is four hours long. It’s shorter than most Grateful Dead concerts in the band’s golden age, which ended in the early 1970’s. That’s more than 40 years ago, so don’t be surprised if someone sitting next you at a screening of the film can’t stay awake. No surprise. The Dead’s core audience is in its seventies — still not a reason to miss this.
If you’re a fan of the band, this will be a film to see, maybe even to savor, and hearing them in live recordings that you haven’t heard before can bring former fans like me back into the fold. Let’s not forget that there could have been many Grateful Dead movies, given the sheer number of concert recordings (which the Dead encouraged fans to make) and an ocean of pictures and videotape.
Bear in mind that Bar-Lev is the first filmmaker to go the distance, which you can’t say about the recent doc on Bob Weir or The Grateful Dead Movie (1977) which consider slices of the band’s history. (You can watch some of the Dead’s 1974 farewell concerts here.) Weir sits in a yoga position as he talks to Bar-Lev about the old days.
Long Strange Trip takes us through the band’s chronology, focusing mostly on Jerry Garcia as a single-minded banjo player who finds his dream instrument in the guitar, and finds that a band forms around him. Don’t discount the parallels between Garcia and another Bay Area garage product, Steve Jobs.
Of course, there’s the bigger context of San Francisco as a catch-basin for an expanding counter-culture, where there always seemed to be an audience for politics and music and whatever people did in groups in parks. Bands multiplied, and a good one could develop a following. Drugs, especially LSD, were a central part of this experience, like yeast for that audience and for the Grateful Dead.
You’ll hear lots of music – Golden Road, Morning Dew, Friend of the Devil, I Know You Rider, Johnny B Goode, Playin’ in the Band, Dear Mr. Fantasy (which I hadn’t heard before), Ripple, Saint Stephen, and the list goes on. Since this is not a concert film, there’s unfortunately not much that runs from beginning to end, but Bar-Lev gives you the feel of what it was like to hear and see the Dead, whether it was backstage or in the huge crowd. Everyone will have an opinion of what else could have been included. Then there’s the question of where those people, now in their 70’s, ended up. You wonder how many of those Dead Heads voted for Trump last year.
Long Strange Trip will be praised and attacked for being too Jerry-centric, which is a problem, since the reflective and articulate Garcia was dead by the time Bar-Lev began the project, and could not be interviewed for the film. He’s still the real presence in the band, a musician who likes nothing more than to retreat into his guitar. But Garcia is also a passive-aggressive anarchist, which means he tolerates and encourages hangers-on from Hell’s Angeles – who kill a man at the ominous Altamont concert in 1969 (see the Maysles’s Gimme Shelter for more on that) – and he tolerates a “collective” management of the band’s affairs.
If nothing else, this chaos, which imploded and broke up the band in 1974, is a strong argument against anarchy as a management principal. It’s also a reminder that one of the bands strengths – its genuine aversion to authority – turned out to also be one of its flaws.
Even died-hard Dead Fans may discover things in the doc – like the fact that “Pig Pen” Ron McKernan was a blues man on the margins of the band because his drug of choice was alcohol, a lonely intoxicant when everyone else is on hallucinogens. We also learn that Al Franken is a fan – “not a scholar, but a fan,” he stresses. How did right-wing rockers like Lee Atwater and Joe Scarborough and Mike Love (Beach Boys) feel about the band? That’s another movie.
And we do get to see Garcia scuba diving, another perspective on the dilemma of celebrity, albeit counter-cultural — a star’s escape from the masses who think they love him. Like so many other celebrities, the Grateful Dead are bemused, bewildered, and sometimes afraid.
For lots of Garcia’s fans, Long Strange Trip won’t be long enough. If you’re a Dead Head, and need something longer, there’s always You Tube. Just wait for the comments on the internet that are sure to lead into infinity once the audience sees the film.
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