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“I wanted to make a film about the Grateful Dead for 11 years,” says Amir Bar-Lev, “and I really don’t know why it finally happened. They’re extraordinarily uninterested in publicity, and infamously slow in decision-making. So I’d be kidding myself if I said that it was the strength of my pitch to them — it may have just been that I outlasted them and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and they finally had to do it just to make me go away.”
In the end, Bar-Lev — who directed 2010’s critically acclaimed doc The Tillman Story — emerged with Long Strange Trip, a two-part, four-hour exploration of a band with an unprecedented place in American culture. Distributed by Amazon and executive produced by, among others, Martin Scorsese, the epic sprawl of the documentary allowed him to trace the Dead’s journey from its roots in bluegrass and beatnik culture up to its chaotic, stadium-filling later days, a story fascinating even to those with limited patience for the music.
Bar-Lev, who also directed the acclaimed documentaries My Kid Could Paint That (2007) and Happy Valley (2014), a film about the Penn State scandal, is a lifelong Deadhead, but his ambitions with Long Strange Trip went well beyond his own fandom. “To me, this isn’t a film about a rock band,” he says. “It’s a film about big questions like life, death, creativity, hero worship, religion — some of the same things I’ve been interested in and explored in the other films.”
The director spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the film’s running time, what surprised him the most and what he learned from the late Jerry Garcia about legacies.
What was the band’s involvement in Long Strange Trip?
Even though they’re credited as executive producers, they never exerted any kind of creative control. I think the film shows them in a complex light — they’ve certainly had ups and downs — and they never asked us to sanitize their story. They really did hand us the keys, almost literally, because they have this fantastic vault with the accumulated archival material of 40 years, and accessing that vault, given the fact that nobody had ever made a documentary about them, was extraordinarily gratifying.
When was the decision made that the film was going to run four hours?
Late. As a director, I was in the doghouse for about a year and a half, because I was contracted to make a 90-minute film. And initially we were trying to time it for the band’s 50th anniversary [in 2015]. I ended up going over budget by about 200 percent and behind schedule by a matter of several years. Luckily, I had a Deadhead financier, so I spoke to him in the language of Deadheads and said, “I think we need to do an extended version of this song and not be too worried about what time the venue wants us offstage” or whatever. He allowed me to improvise, and I’m really lucky for that.
As a fan, what surprised you the most?
What was surprising to me, given my familiarity with the story, was the complex way the band, and in particular Jerry Garcia, struggled not just with celebrity, but something deeper than that. One of the great discoveries was Jerry saying that he didn’t want anything to be left over of him when he was gone — in other words, that he didn’t want a legacy. Which is very much at odds with what happened, and is a challenging thing to hear as a documentary filmmaker.
Some of the footage of Garcia toward the end of his life gets very dark.
Because he lost his father at a very young age, Garcia was aware of life’s impermanence, and he embraced it. He realized that one of the most lasting things you can do is to commit yourself to the now, to living in the present moment. And because the Dead were so good at that, it was contagious, and they created a 30-year legacy of fantastic individual moments. They weren’t interested in creating a foundation on which a culture could be built. And as a guy who comes at this from a religious studies background, I’m fascinated by that, because it really does feel like mysticism more than just music.
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The Tragedy of Macbeth