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.