Like so many Grateful Dead concerts, Amir Bar-Lev’s fantastically entertaining (if also deeply sad) four-hour documentary about the band, Long Strange Trip, doesn’t begin or end quite as you expect. As the film opens, we see and hear a wizened-beyond-his-years Jerry Garcia talk about his favorite childhood movie, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, in an interview conducted not long before he died in 1995 at the age of 53. For Garcia, the 1948 horror-comedy classic was an introduction to a weird, shadowy world beyond the straight and narrow. As a young child, Garcia recalled decades later, he felt the pull of that world instinctually.
The rest, as they say, is history. Garcia went on to spearhead arguably the greatest American rock band ever, a group that endures as practically its own genre, if not a self-contained universe. Few bands have as rich of a history as the Grateful Dead, or simply as much history. While many classic-rock groups have iconic albums, the Dead have dozens of specific concerts that have been elevated to mythic status by the band’s famously devoted following. One of the most celebrated Dead shows, 5/8/77 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, was finally officially released earlier this month, and is the subject of a recent book. That’s just one show from a month in Dead history that has been discussed more thoroughly than most bands’ discographies.
The challenge of Long Strange Trip is somehow distilling all of that mythology into a coherent narrative, an exceedingly tall order that Bar-Lev pulls off with considerable deftness. Long Strange Trip has the rhythm of a Dead bootleg, eschewing a linear narrative focused on familiar historical benchmarks for a more digressive approach that nonetheless pushes the story forward at a steady clip. Along with interviewing surviving members and utilizing rarely seen footage to conjure Garcia’s spirit — including an incredible aborted documentary from the early ’70s that the band sabotaged by dosing the film crew — Bar-Lev introduces us to the Dead’s sizable crew of roadies, road managers, office staff, lyricists, ex-girlfiends, drinking buddies and other assorted hangers-on. There’s also space afforded to fans (including celebrities like Al Franken) who have spent years scouring tapes in a Talmudic pursuit of the perfect “Althea” guitar solo.
But if Long Strange Trip occasionally teeters on the precipice of excess — which, again, is entirely appropriate given the subject matter — the focus always pulls pack to Garcia, a quintessentially American iconoclast who spent his life pursuing fun and freedom at all costs. No matter how far and wide Long Strange Tip ranges, it’s the narrative of Garcia’s rise and fall that provides the film’s emotional through-line. Especially for Dead neophytes, who might not understand why the “Morning Dew” from Europe ’72 is so mind-blowing, Long Strange Trip is perhaps best appreciated as an another iteration of the “flawed American visionary” story recounted in films like Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood, except with a kinder, gentler, and more passive protagonist.
By the end of Long Strange Trip, when Bar-Lev returns to Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, it has taken on a new metaphorical meaning: Garcia was a man ultimately overcome by his own outsized creation. But when I spoke with Long Strange Trip‘s director, he suggested that Garcia might’ve have wanted it that way all along.
One of the things that really bowled me over about Long Strange Trip is that the Grateful Dead has so much history and mythology that condensing it down into a coherent narrative must’ve been difficult, even with a four-hour running time. How did you decide what to leave in and what to take out?
The only way you can do it is to basically punt on the history lesson of it, and remember that you’re making a film and not a Wikipedia entry. So you really don’t have to be beholden to an exhaustive recitation of the facts. You can select characters not because, from a historical point of view, they’re the most important people, but rather because they’re big characters. That’s what we did — we just tried to populate the film with people that our audience would find really interesting.
Was there ever a point when the film was going to be six or seven hours long? Because, as far as I’m concerned, it could’ve been.
No, it was the opposite. We were contracted to make a 90-minute film. There was a contract that says that. When you make a film you [usually] do a first pass that’s much longer but is not a final cut. Then you tighten your screws and whittle it down. But we didn’t work that way. We fine-cut our way from the beginning, because we wanted to develop a formal approach that felt musical, that had some Grateful Dead elements to it and evoked the Grateful Dead, rather than described the Grateful Dead. That forced us to cut our way from the beginning of the story. We got to 1974 and it was two hours long, and we said to ourselves, “Uh-oh, we need to ask for more money.” And that’s how the thing became four hours long.
The other thing that really impressed me about Long Strange Trip is that you were able to ride that fine line between appealing to hardcore Deadheads and making it accessible to newcomers. You honor the music, but you also tell a good story. How do you strike that balance?
The problem with the Grateful Dead is that it’s experiential. Like sex or food, it’s hard to talk about — you have to seek out people who are very articulate. And you get them to explain what was so special about the Grateful Dead. That was always our goal. To explain what was interesting or unique about the band to people who didn’t get it, and who may have been turned off by the devoted, cosmic legions of Deadheads, who back in the old days would just say “I can’t explain it, man, go to a show.” But there will come a day when we’re all dead and there will be no shows to go to.
You originally had the idea to do a documentary about the Dead in 2003. It took 11 years to finally get the green light. What was the hold up?
I had three strikes against me. The Grateful Dead don’t care about publicity. They don’t care about posterity so much. And they are adverse to being explained or defined in any way. I think they have a lot of reservations about documentary films or books that come along and try to pin the butterfly, and create one meaning instead of a multitude of meanings.
And then there’s a fourth reason, which is they don’t make decisions well or quickly. Because they are non-hierarchical and leaderless. But all of that is by design. So a documentary filmmaker who comes along and says, “I want to make the definitive documentary,” is going to have a long, arduous task ahead of him.