Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, certainly lives up to its title in one respect: It is almost four hours long. (Theaters will screen it in its entirety with an intermission, but most people will end up seeing this on Amazon Prime, where it will be presented as a six-episode miniseries.) And yet, for a band as shrouded in myth as the Grateful Dead, such a grand treatment seems entirely fitting. Their path—from a scrappy San Francisco group with a penchant for experimental drug use and anti-authoritarianism, to disciplined recording artists, to a purely live act, to a global best-selling phenomenon with a massive cult following—is the kind of all-over-the-place, winding road that can’t be compressed into a mere two hours.
As such, Long Strange Trip is packed with incident in its expansive length, and for the most part, the pace never flags. Even better, the insights and perspectives keep on coming at a breezy clip, with Bar-Lev featuring a dizzying array of interviews of current living band members; many of the backstage hands and groupies around them; a record executive or two; and even a couple of self-proclaimed “Deadheads,” including current Democratic senator Al Franken. (Notably absent from this cornucopia are the voices of music critics; this is a chronicle told entirely from the points-of-view of those intimately involved in it.) The wealth of archival material is also remarkable, with the film culling home movie footage, concert footage and even audio clips from some of the homemade tapes of recordings captured by devoted fans at live shows.
All of this will be catnip to fans already predisposed to devouring anything Dead-related. Thankfully, Long Strange Trip offers plenty for those on the outside looking in as well. Not only does the film provide an exhaustive account of the band’s rise and fall, but it also clearly articulates their importance in music history, their singular character as a performing entity and even the distinctive nature of their fandom. For those who have been puzzled by the whole “Deadhead” phenomenon, Bar-Lev, with the help of his interview subjects, explains the passion behind some fans’ obsessive zeal to tape multiple live performances, exchange recordings with other fans, and even compare and contrast these interpretations and improvisations, in ways that will actually make sense to outsiders.
At one point during his interview with Franken, we hear the Minnesota senator ask Bar-Lev behind the camera about a particular live performance of “Althea” the director himself has heard before he responds with his thoughts on the other live performance he’s heard that he believes is better. This small moment suggests that Bar-Lev is certainly coming from a place of fandom in Long Strange Trip, but while the film exudes reverence to its subject, it doesn’t lapse into mere candle-burning hagiography.
Bar-Lev presents the band’s founder and lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, as an ambitious yet deeply flawed human being: a visionary who pursued his free-spirited and highly democratic artistic vision perhaps to ultimately destructive ends. Not everyone thinks of Garcia himself fondly here, as evidenced by lyricist John Perry Barlow’s caustic dismissals of the band as he blames his and the rest of the band’s behavior in part for the untimely death of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in 1973. As for Garcia personally, Bar-Lev ropes in the wistful testimony of his on-and-off girlfriend Barbara “Brigid” Meier, who eventually couldn’t take his heroin abuse and breakneck touring schedule anymore. But Bar-Lev reserves his film’s most heartrending insight into Garcia’s behavior later in life towards the end of the film, when Meier and others point out that Garcia eventually felt beholden to his fans to keep the Grateful Dead phenomenon going even at the cost of his own health (he died of a heart attack in 1995, at age 53). There’s real poignancy when one interview subject points out the bitter irony of a man who preached absolute freedom, but who became essentially imprisoned by his acolytes’ undying devotion.
On an aesthetic level, Long Strange Trip is a fairly conventional talking-heads documentary, although within those boundaries Bar-Lev finds some inventive moments: cutting back and forth between two people telling the same anecdote; manipulating color and editing to simulate the experience of an acid trip; turning clips from Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein into a leitmotif for Garcia, whose last interview featured him talking about the importance of that film to his life.
The film’s most noteworthy achievement, though, lies in just how well it achieves the grand scope for which it aims. Bar-Lev not only proposes the Grateful Dead as an embodiment of the American ideal of absolute freedom—for better and for worse—but, by sheer force of its epic length and attention to multitudinous biographical and human detail, Long Strange Trip makes that thesis seem absolutely convincing. One may well come away from Long Strange Trip believing that the Grateful Dead is, if not necessarily the greatest band ever, at least the most profoundly American of them all.
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Starring: Dennis McNally, Barbara “Brigid” Meier, Alan Trist, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann
Release Date: May 26, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice, in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.