The Grateful Dead phenomenon lives on. While the death of the band’s iconic front man, Jerry Garcia, put the kibosh on the band in 1995, the surviving members continue to perform the Dead’s music in various permutations of the original lineup. The music plays on, though the band’s story has eluded the cinematic treatment. Both the nature of the tale and the sanctity of its telling had prevented filmmakers from gaining the blessing and support of the surviving band members. Until now.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, it took director Amir Bar-Lev more than 10 years to earn their trust and perform the research necessary to complete his four-hour documentary. Long Strange Trip provides an exhaustive overview of the band and a powerfully bittersweet tribute to Garcia. Presented in six acts, the narrative depicts events in chronological order, framed by what appear to be clips from Garcia’s final interview.
In the beginning, Garcia elucidates his childhood affection for the Frankenstein monster, laying the groundwork for various Frankenstein clips throughout the film. The story continues with Garcia’s musical history, the formative days of the band, their business exploits, and the role of psychedelic culture in the development of the outfit’s ethos. The brilliant, humorous editing of archival and new interviews helps to establish their legendarily amorphous identity by offering opposing perspectives.
One example of this occurs after it has been established the band made all of their decisions as a collective body. Following this utopian revelation, former tour manager Sam Cutler says the band members were simply “stupid” when it came to business acumen, illustrating his point-of-view with a joke: “What’s a camel? It’s a horse designed by a committee.”
Following Cutler’s departure from band management, roadie Steve Parish recalls an encounter wherein he was approached by someone wanting to know who was in charge. His response? “The situation is the boss.” Sometimes, he was the boss, and sometimes, Garcia was the boss; if a truck had a blown carburetor, then that carburetor was the boss.
As the film moves along at a relatively fast clip, Bar-Lev treats the audience to a fairly comprehensive cornucopia of motifs from the Grateful Dead universe. There is the story of Owsley “Bear” Stanley, who was not only a legendary LSD chemist, but also the mad scientist who designed a monstrous, monolithic P.A. system called the Wall of Sound that the band spent “an unconscionable amount of money on” and toted with them around the world. It was worth it: Before Stanley took over live audio for the Dead, none of the members could hear the others sing, which led to some disappointingly non-harmonious early bootleg recordings. Then there were the tunes, which were both bastions of the enigmatic and nebulous ethos of the band, as well as the basis for the band’s community of tapers (those who tape-recorded live performances).
Former Saturday Night Live writer/current U.S. Senator Al Franken recalls the passion and particularity that various Deadheads had not only for specific songs, but also for specific performances of songs. He insists the May 16, 1980, performance of “Althea” at Nassau Coliseum is the “most hair-raising” of any Dead tune.
Naturally, the story is also fraught with darkness and tragedy. As Bar-Lev’s documentary shows, while this jolly band of misfits chugged along, a toll was taken on the lives of the core Grateful Dead family. Drug- and alcohol-related deaths are shown to claim the lives of various band and crew members; later, in the late ’80s, when their concerts drew thousands of ticketless fans out to party, the mayhem led to problems with local police officers, who are shown brutalizing kids.
At the center of it all was Garcia. Archival footage and interviews with his band mates and family members show that he was, by turns, a modern prophet, a humble musician and a tortured soul. Following the infamous murder at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert, Garcia refuses to place blame on the Hells Angel who did the stabbing; instead, he insists, the tragedy was a collective failing of humanity.
When his publicist insists he address the overcrowding at his concerts, for safety’s sake, Garcia balks. He eschews the title of leader, yet he feels the responsibility to helm the machine that will keep his extended family employed and his fans happy. The principal problem that the film posits is that while the Grateful Dead served as a spiritual haven and catharsis for so many people, it took an extreme tax on Garcia’s life. “The secret to longevity in the music business,” says Cutler, “is to leave it.”
Long Strange Trip was directed by Amir Bar-Lev.