Film Review: ‘Long Strange Trip’

'Long Strange Trip' Review: An Epic
Courtesy of Sundance

Who wants to see a four-hour documentary about the Grateful Dead? Every Deadhead in the world, but Amir Bar-Lev's epic chronicle is good enough to captivate nonbelievers.

Long Strange Trip” is a movie that every Deadhead in the kozmic universe will want to see, and with good reason: At three hours and 58 minutes, it has the sprawl and generosity of a good Dead show, yet there’s nothing indulgent about it — it’s an ardent piece of documentary classicism. The film counts Martin Scorsese among its executive producers, and it was directed by Amir Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story”), who works with the historical meticulousness a subject like this one deserves. Bar-Lev, who grew up in the Bay Area, uses the long-form running time to digress where he sees fit, but mostly he stays hooked to the center of his subject: how the Grateful Dead, after rising to prominence as an electric jam band in the late ’60s — the hippie minstrels of the Haight-Ashbury circus — took on a wriggling, effusive identity of their own that could be shaped and guided but never fully controlled.

In an earlier era, a movie like “Long Strange Trip” would have been passed around on VHS or DVD, but it was really made (in every way) for the exploding age of television. It’s set to debut on June 2 on Amazon Prime Video, where it will now have a chance to reach many more eyeballs than it would have before. Deadheads will drink it in and debate it, poring over every detail it works in and leaves out, yet the ultimate recommendation I can give the movie is this: I’m one of those people who can’t stand the Grateful Dead (I think they have about four or five good songs, and if I never heard “Casey Jones” or “Truckin'” again you’d hear no strenuous objection from me), yet I found “Long Strange Trip” enthralling. For the first time, it made me see, and feel, and understand the slovenly glory of what they were up to, even if my ears still process their music as monotonous roots-rock wallpaper.

The movie builds its vibrant portrait of Jerry Garcia from the ground up. Born in San Francisco in 1942, Garcia was five years old when his father died on a fishing trip, and the movie details his boyhood fixation on the Frankenstein monster. Later, he moved on to the Beats and “Breathless,” Ken Kesey’s acid-tripping Merry Pranksters and the intoxicating jingle-jangle of the banjo, an instrument he practiced obsessively. When the Dead started out, in 1965, they were the druggie version of a bluegrass/folk band, calling themselves the Warlocks until they learned that there was another band called the Warlocks, who would soon change their name as well (to the Velvet Underground). The story of how Jerry’s band came to call themselves the Grateful Dead has a spooky resonance. The name was discovered through a random plunge into the dictionary, yet it expressed something light and dark, ebullient and self-destructive in Garcia’s nature.

The Dead were the original niche band, a psychedelic cave people lived inside, and “Long Strange Trip” is a cult chronicle rich with anecdote, archival footage, interviews with band members, managers, significant others, and record-company executives, plus a tribute to the reclusive wordsmith Robert Hunter that (almost) makes you want to go back and decipher some of his more gnomic lyrics. The movie taps into the fascinating showbiz politics of the music industry, chronicling the band’s tempestuous relationship with Warner Bros., a label that offered them a freedom in the recording studio that would be unimaginable today. The Dead took it for granted, yet what worked in the band’s live performances — the endless noodling and collective improv — wasn’t exactly album-friendly. They couldn’t make a single, and the perverse beauty of it was: They didn’t care. Finally, they came up with “Uncle John’s Band” (one of those rare tracks that an un-Deadhead like me can actually enjoy listening to), and it anchored their landmark 1970 album “Workingman’s Dead” and changed the trajectory of their career. The suits at Warner Bros. weren’t just pleased; they were, in a word, grateful.

Yet the Dead, over and over, demonstrated what one wag calls “a sublimated desire not to be successful.” They were set to be the subject of one of the first concert films devoted to a single band, but the project fell apart, sabotaged by Garcia’s turning the crew members into acidheads. Almost any other band in their position would have begun a slow fade into oblivion. But the Dead survived, and thrived, through one of the greatest flukes in rock history.

By the time of their 1972 tour of Europe, they’d become a roving commune, with dozens of mouths to feed. The road was the only thing keeping them solvent; doing shows, night after night, turned into a hamster wheel they couldn’t climb off. But that’s how the road became their brand. The Dead evolved into the living spectre of the counterculture — not a nostalgia act, but the one band that made it seem as though the communal dream of the ’60s was alive, today, right in front of you. To go to a Dead show was to merge with the dream, to be part of it. The Deadheads, a tie-dyed, dirty-rasta-braided barefoot horde of acid-tripping devotion, were the phenomenon driving that train.

The Dead became an industry by not trying to. “Long Strange Trip” makes a telling point of the bootleg cassette recordings of Dead shows that became a secret history of rock & roll, as profound as the Basement Tapes or the Beatles’ “Get Back” sessions. They were the definition of “piracy,” yet the tapes didn’t take money away. They radically increased the band’s fortunes, minting and turning on new Deadheads all over the world. There’s a great moment in the movie that defines the fervor of Dead-bootleg mania: Sen. Al Franken, a Deadhead from way back, talks about his personal Holy Grail of Dead-show recordings — Jerry’s guitar solo on the May 1980 version of “Althea.” We hear that bootleg track, and it sounded, to my ears, like a generic bad 1970s white-guy guitar solo. But I still got high on how much Al Franken loved it.

The story of Jerry Garcia’s downfall has been amply chronicled, and though “Long Strange Trip” doesn’t delve as much as it might have into his relentless appetites, notably his on-and-off heroin addiction, it culminates in a haunting portrait of Garcia the rock star who became a rock messiah until it ate him alive. The grind of the tour with no end wore him down, yet he refused to give it up. The other band members recall how they tried to coerce him into taking a break, but he would say no, he couldn’t let the fans down. That was mostly an excuse. (Even on the rare occasions when they did stop for a breather, Jerry just went right out on tour with his own band.) “Long Strange Trip” captures one of the most potent and eccentric sagas in the history of rock & roll, but in the end it’s the story of a lone artist-addict — the man who, more than any other, symbolized the communality of rock yet wound up as spiritually isolated as Elvis. He was high on the music, the love, the adulation, the followers, the dream. It was the road that became his ultimate addiction.

Film Review: 'Long Strange Trip'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, January 25, 2017. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 241 MIN.

Production

An Amazon Video release of a Double E Pictures, Sikelia Productions prod. Producers: Eric Eisner, Nick Koskoff, Alex Blavatnik, Justin Kreutzmann, Ken Dornstein. Executive producers: Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Andy Heller, Sandy Heller, Thomas J. Mangan IV, Alica Sams, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Rick Yorn.

Crew

Director: Amir Bar-Lev. Camera (color, widescreen): Nelson Hume. Editor: Keith Fraase, John Walter.

With

Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Robert Hunter, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Tom Constanten, Donna Godchaux, Keith Godchaux, Ron McKernan, Brent Mydland.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 17

Leave a Reply

17 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. hbg says:

    Only someone completely unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead, and fiction over fact would like or recommend this documentary to anyone. It’s dark tone is fine, if that is the focus the film wants to take, but it makes huge omissions, which of course any documentary will do in keeping to the thread of it’s intent, but it makes points with out validation or backing it up, and also has some glaring false truths. Great never before seen footage can hardly be enough to recommend this film, clearly made by a poser with no real comprehension, or even the removed subjectivity needed for a good documentary.

  2. Veronique says:

    There is a falsity in this article that may or may not come from the movie- I have not seen it. The other band members pushed Garcia hard to stay on the road. He desperately was trying to escape. He went into solitude rehab without telling anyone trying to make a break for it. The guys in the band are guilty. One said he saw his heart beating out of his chest after their last tour and left him at the airport alone knowing he’s not see him again. Those guys are money-junkie assholes. Please watch the 1978 Grateful Dead movie. Jerry made it and animated it. He was a fantastic artist. It is the true Grateful Dead documentary. May all beings be liberated through the intense and perfect work of Jerry Garcia. He is a Buddha.

  3. keith Jacobs says:

    As a longtime DeadHead, my first show was Yale Bowl 7-31-71. I stayed on the bus until the last sad shows of 1995.

    Attended hundreds of shows, became a DAT taper, took my kids to their first shows when they were still in the womb, dragging my poor wife up to Red Rocks in ’84 while she was five months pregnant.

    I would very much like to see this movie at the LA premiere on May 26.

    Does anyone know which theatre(s) the LA showings on May 26 will be?

    Or how to get tickets or find out about this May 26 LA showing of Long Strange Trip?

    • Leslie Evans says:

      You’ll love this documentary. I was lucky enough to see it during Sundance. I’ll go see it again on May 25th!

  4. Randolph Roeder says:

    Any clues as to why Robert Hunter wasn’t included and/or more cooperative ?

    • Veronique says:

      Hunter is also a smart man. He understands really almost to the root of al of this. If he tried to say what it really was he’d come off as crazy- he knows that as do I. We have to wait. In many years this will be religion. Garcia’s muse has then all under protection. The best way to understand her is to read Hunter’s eulogy. She was hidden and obviously is in this movie as Garcia but is not a person of interest. Hunter knows what Terrapin is and how it works. He can’t reveal that other than by revealing it and letting beings find it. I hope that makes sense. Hunter is a very special man and I am not afraid so- those guys still play and tour and make tons of money. Hunter was gettin 4 cents per love CD sold. That’s it. They ripped him off left him for dead. His wife is highly protective of him. He can’t reveal these things while these guys are still active. They haven’t been very cool.

    • Veronique says:

      Bob Hunter is a private man. And a very decent man.

  5. James Williams says:

    This film maker, no doubt “wasn’t there” – as Huckleberry House Alumni. concert goer to many Marx and Speedway Meadows early music shows with. get this : The Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic” and Builder and promoter for Stanford Research Institute, I can say : “Haight-Ashbury Counter Culture” as silly as it seemed, was “a Micro-Renaissance”, according to scholar/PhD and publisher of the Beats – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and maybe the last we get before Nuclear Annihilation- So it’s so popular to “hate hippies” – I just f-cking laugh as the “real hippies” were like Steven Gaskin, of the Farm – Korean War vet who told the story of Mother Hips and not havin’ to walk back over that mine field that day, because this gay soldier pointed his 45 at the commanding officer and told him “We’re not going back”- who. the commanding officer. was demoted to KP after the incident – … “Warriors Weary” of War and everyone stereotypes the “hippies” as being some weak old fad – true educated scholars are hard to come-by these days and opinion and statements weak and and false are the earmark of the day …

  6. Mike Lawson says:

    One name conspicuously missing from that last of band members. Is this a Stalinesque purge?

  7. Kevin Nelson says:

    14,635 live Grateful Dead tracks in my iTunes, and yet, it’s still not enough.
    Forever Grateful that I got experience them dozens of times in concert.
    A grand part of the “old, weird America” that seems to recede further into the distance every day.
    Looking forward to this movie. Glad it’s getting such great reviews.

    • Veronique says:

      I have the entire archive vault of you would like it. Meaning the band’s soundboards of every show. I also have Jerry’s vaults of his band.

  8. Spencer Selander says:

    As a Deadhead since the early ’70s, I actually understand how you could hear their music as “monotonous roots-rock wallpaper”. I didn’t get it at first, myself – I thought they were a passable band, but nothing special. I couldn’t see what got people so “into” them.

    Then one day a few of us went over to my cousin Phil’s house to listen to his new McIntosh stereo. We smoked a few bong hits, and he played “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead” – and I really listened to them for the first time. On that superb stereo each instrument came through clearly, the way it was meant to be heard. What seemed like musical wallpaper from a casual listen was revealed, instead, to be a rich tapestry. As a musician, I was blown away – there was so much more to this music than most rock. I finally got it.

    Saw them on concert the next time the tour came through, and it was amazing. It became a cliche, but there really is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. Started as a simple rock & roll show – a rather amateurish and disorganized one, at that – but the intensity built in waves, you were drawn in more and more, eventually reaching moments of absolute transcendence. Though it went on for hours, you wished that it could go on longer, but finally you had to return to mundane reality.

    It’s no wonder Garcia was consumed by it. It was his glory, and his tragedy – and I still miss him.

  9. MITCH C. says:

    THESE SURVIVING BOZOS OWE US ALL AN OVERDUE APOLOGY FOR DRIVING JERRY INTO AN EARLY GRAVE. HOW LONG DOES IT HAVE TO TAKE ???

  10. Greg says:

    Can’t wait to see it
    How can you like just 5 dead songs?????

More Film News from Variety

Loading