In 2003, Amir Bar-Lev (“Happy Valley,” “The Tillman Story”) had just one film under his belt, “Fighter,” and a lofty idea for his next project: the definitive Grateful Dead documentary. It was a daunting task that would end up taking 14 years, 11 of them trying to get the band’s blessing and the proverbial ball rolling, and another three producing and shooting the film. “Long Strange Trip” finally opens in theaters on May 25 and arrives to Amazon Prime Video on June 2.
Clocking in at just under four hours and divided into six acts, the doc chronicles the Bay Area band’s incredible journey from the early days of the San Francisco Acid Tests to the death of legendary guitarist and co-founder Jerry Garcia.
Bar-Lev, a self-described Deadhead, first discovered the Dead’s music as a teenager in Berkeley, California. He is quick to note that 1973 is his favorite year from the Dead’s massive concert vaults is and his most cherished live version of “Dark Star” was recorded on March 1, 1969 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. “The Grateful Dead was a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” he tells Variety. “Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon say they’re fans of the Dead, so they’re obviously hearing one thing, while I’m hearing a different thing.”No stone was left unturned when it came to music used in the film, which was remixed in 7.1 Surround Sound from the master recordings. The filmmaker nonetheless says he was heartbroken about some of the songs that didn’t make the film. “Box of Rain,” “Jack Straw,” “Estimated Prophet” and “Cassidy” are among the missing tunes, but fans will be more than happy to hear a chilling version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” along with stellar renditions of “The Other One” and “Morning Dew.”
Variety sat down with Bar-Lev ahead of the doc’s release:
What was your approach to making this film?
I set about with a goal to make a film that felt musical rather than only spoke about music. That evolved with a formal approach that was layered and impressionistic and that is painstakingly slow to do, but we wanted the film to share things in common with Terence Malik’s films and Spike Jonze and Michele Gondry’s films, because I think those films are more psychedelic than films that are overtly about drugs.
Did you know the film was going to run so long when you started making it?
We were commissioned to make a 90-minute film and when we got to two hours we were only up to 1974 so we had a discussion with our team. I have a very patient financier who is also a Dead fan. We Dead fans have a vernacular that we can call upon when explaining that the plan needs to get abandoned and things need to get improvisational.
What are the Holy Grail video and audio recordings you discovered while making the film?
We found the remnants of documentaries that were never completed because the band slipped LSD [to the crew] in order to thwart their forward progress. We found Jerry Garcia professing his undying love to his former sweetheart on a cassette recording from 1991. We found innumerable nitrous oxide parties, fascinating interviews that nobody had ever seen… it was an embarrassment of riches.
How did you go about choosing the music for the film and did you do anything to the audio?
One of the things we had that was really special is that David Lemieux, the Dead’s archivist, gave us access to all the stems of any multi-track recordings they did. We were able to take their music and break it into constituent parts and kind of remix it and then create a 7.1 surround sound mix out of it. When you see the film in the theater or with a good home entertainment system, you will feel like you are surrounded by the music. The music is renewed and made strange again because nobody has ever heard these versions of these songs because we made them ourselves.
Why should non-Deadheads spend four hours of their lives watching this film?
You should go see a film if it’s well made, you don’t have to care for the subject matter. You should go see a war movie even though you are not interested in being a soldier. You should go see a music documentary if you’re curious about the phenomenon. There is a lot to be curious about here. This was a somewhat Utopian project, there are a lot of laughs, a lot of bad behavior, there’s a love story and there’s everything else you need in a film. Come see it for the filmmaking.
Dead and Company are about to hit the road again, with John Mayer on guitar, Jeff Chimenti on keys and Oteill Burbridge on bass? What’s your take on this latest iteration of the Dead legacy.
I love Dead and Company. I’m going to a ton of shows this summer and went to a ton last summer.
Did you hear Chris Robinson’s recent comments to Howard Stern? He is not a fan of Mayer.
Chris Robinson saying that is the antithesis of everything Jerry stood for as far as I can understand. If you don’t like it than just don’t go, that’s fine…. but feuds in the trades are not very… Grateful Dead.