You do not need to be a fan of legendary hippie-rock collective The Grateful Dead fan to enjoy Long Strange Trip, a marathon documentary chronicling the band’s 30-year career. But by the time you reach the third hour of noodling guitar jams and gushing fanboy veneration, it certainly helps. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, with Martin Scorsese credited as executive producer, the film screened as a four-hour movie premiere at Sundance ahead of its broadcast launch as a six-part Amazon series in May.
Charting the band's journey from banjo-playing beatniks in Kerouac-era San Francisco to bushy-bearded Haight-Ashbury acid freaks to unlikely stadium-filling elder statesmen in the late 1980s, Long Strange Trip features interview contributions from former members Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Donna Godchaux. But the main focus inevitably falls on the Dead’s late guitarist and guru-like founder, Jerry Garcia.
Although devoted Deadheads will be the prime target audience, Long Strange Trip also provides a detailed primer for curious rock fans who never bought into the cult around the band. And while Bar-Lev never quite unlocks the Dead’s elusive appeal, he does a commendably thorough job of explaining them to anyone with the patience to sit through four hours of musical myth-making and occasionally self-indulgent nostalgia for a lost, romanticized, acid-fried America.
Divided into six chapters, the film’s sprawling, loosely chronological structure seems designed to evoke the Dead’s famously longwinded musical digressions through jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass and psychedelic rock. A patchwork of their music plays almost seamlessly beneath the visuals, which blend contemporary interviews with an abundance of archive footage, much of it never seen before. This baggy stylistic approach may prove effective when spliced into TV episodes, but across four hours of cinema it starts to drag and drift. Some of the longer subplots, such as when the Dead sabotaged a film project by spiking the crew’s drinks with LSD, or their construction of a mountainous 75-ton mobile speaker system dubbed “the Wall of Sound,” could comfortably have been trimmed to half their length.
Long Strange Trip becomes especially saggy in its mid-section, with too much unchallenged waffle about the Dead’s quasi-mystical powers: “Every place we play is a church.” Meanwhile, Bar-Lev provides surprisingly little factual context on the band’s diverse personalities, family backgrounds, personal lives, side projects, business arrangements or wider cultural impact. Their Woodstock appearance is overlooked, their crucial involvement in the notorious Altamont Speedway show with the Rolling Stones barely merits a mention and their political and spiritual beliefs remain vague throughout. This lack of journalistic rigor is surprising given the director’s track record of hard-hitting documentaries on subjects like Hurricane Katrina and U.S. military cover-ups. Bar-Lev is clearly a Grateful Dead fan, but uncritical devotees rarely make good biographers.
To his credit, Bar-Lev does find some useful devices to yoke this ungainly rockumentary together. Garcia’s fondness for the 1948 horror comedy Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein becomes a recurring visual motif, bookending the movie. The band’s one-time road manager, Sam Cutler, who earned his stripes wrangling The Rolling Stones, serves as an eloquent chorus figure with a refreshingly blunt tongue, recalling Garcia and his merry pranksters as “children in a man’s world.” Former label boss Joe Smith also provides some wry perspective on The Dead in their anarchic, money-wasting, nitrous oxide-huffing youth.
The film’s final two chapters are the most illuminating for non-fans. Deadhead disciples, including Sen. Al Franken, try to explain the obsessive fan subculture of bootleg tapes and parking lot parties that mushroomed around the band’s phenomenally successful rebirth in the late 1980s. This mobile army of like-minded geeks grew into a fascinating DIY movement that anticipated the atomized virtual communities of the internet.
Sadly, the pressures of belated commercial success weighed heavily on Garcia, whose health was already fragile due to diabetes and sporadic heroin addiction. A middle-aged reunion with his former girlfriend Barbara "Brigid" Meier provides the film with a touching and revelatory romantic interlude, but it ends on a bitter note. When Garcia died from a heart attack in 1995, he was just 53, but he looked 20 years older. Long Strange Trip is an affectionate and well-crafted documentary, but it would have benefited from a little more of this emotionally raw material and a little less fawning reverence.
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Cinematographer: Nelson Hume
Editors: Keith Fraase, John Walter
Producers: Ken Dornstein, Justin Kreutzmann, Alex Blavatnik, Nick Koskoff, Eric Eisner
Executive producers: Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Rick Yorn, Thomas J. Mangan IV, Alicia Sams, Andy Heller, Sandy Heller
Music supervisors: David Lemieux, Joe Rudge, Kyle McKeveny
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)