Over the weekend I watched the Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip. My expectations have been high for this project ever since Martin Scorsese’s name was attached in 2014. After I heard about the four hour runtime I was elated at what this movie might be. Since the new year the documentary has made the rounds at film festivals. The word definitive has been tossed around. Upon seeing it, I realized I’ve been mistaking the word definitive with the word encyclopedic. Long Strange Trip is definitive of the entity that is the Grateful Dead. It is not however, encyclopedic of it.
To start, the film by Amir Bar-Lev has high credentials. As mentioned earlier, Martin Scorsese who has done some of the best music documentaries of the last half century was involved. In addition, filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann (son of Bill the drummer) who has been an unofficial videographer for the band since the 90s produced this film. Based off the book by Dennis McNally, it not only includes interviews with all four surviving members of the Dead but several more reclusive members of the Dead family including Sam Cutler, Steve Parrish, Brigid Meier, and Trixie Garcia.
The movie appropriately bookends with Jerry Garcia. Jerry is an easy subject. He and Ron Pigpen McKernan founded the band. The former would die 8 short years into the band’s career and it was Jerry’s death that ended the band in 1995. But that story has been the subject of numerous pieces of media. Although Amir Bar-Lev illuminates more flaws In Jerry’s character and lifestyle, it certainly doesn’t paint anything close to his full story, instead only weaving it in tandem with Dead.
That is to say, Jerry Garcia’s story is one that is worth telling. His early life was tragic and unconventional. He was in the epicenter of one of the most tumultuous cultural movements in our country’s history. And with a single focus and songbook, he amassed a business and following that would ultimately crush him.
Long Strange Trip on the surface can be mistaken for a Jerry Garcia document. And as a documentarian I can see how separating The Grateful Dead from Jerry Garcia is a challenge. His decisions, drug use, and personal life directed the band more than any other member. And Bar-Lev’s representation of Jerry Garcia though not complete is very compelling. But clearly Amir is not trying to make a complete Jerry Garcia movie. For anyone who is looking for that story, there are a number of books and a delightful VH1 Jerry Garcia Behind the Music from the early 2000s. And it’s possible the content simply wasn’t there to go further down the rabbit hole. Bar-Lev does talk to Brigid Meier and Trixie Garcia. They are wonderfully insightful but both admit their own questions of both Jerry and the wonder of the Grateful Dead. It’s possible Amir felt it was a lost cause. The remaining members of the Dead can be overly dramatic about things. Jerry’s writing partner Robert Hunter is a recluse. Though interviewing the long list of woman Jerry Garcia was married to or romantically involved with may make for a more thorough document, it muddies the narrative.
It’s commendable that Amir was able to finagle his studio to make a four hour documentary. To create a piece of media that dives further than surface level on the Grateful Dead would be a daunting undertaking that would take time. Their 30 year history spans multple distinct periods and depending on your counting up to 14 members. To dissect any one part of the Dead’s mystery whether it be the Acid Tests, biographies, the resurgence in the eighties, the crowd control, or the band’s tragic downfall could easily fill four hours and be entertaining. The movie works this question: Does it effect the band as a whole? If yes, it can be left in, if not leave it out. That is the only way you can leave out people like Bruce Hornsby, Dan Healy, Candace Brightman, and shockingly Vince Welnick. That is also how the death of Brent Mydland can only framed as a juncture eventually leading to Jerry Garcia’s fall back into heroin. Although gripping, as I watched this movie I found myself thinking ‘Oh, I guess we’re not going to touch on that’.
I’m a sensible person and realize that to be definitive with the Grateful Dead you’d need to invest a lot more time and money. And although a multi-season show about the Grateful Dead would appease the fanbase, but such a lengthy documentary would not be as beautiful as Long Strange Trip. Any more length or indulging the fanbase may not have mass appeal nor be as strong of a story. Additionally, many of the key players have passed on and their story cannot be framed in their own words. The definitive Grateful Dead documentary may be too ambitious of a project and conceivably to late.
With those critiques aside, the end result is captivating. Amir was able to pull a delightful amount of material from the vaults. The Grateful Dead have released most of their footage in one form or another so it’s still surprising to see something new. My favorite was the extra footage from the Grateful Dead Movie. Bar-Lev spends an unusually long amount of time focusing around the early 70s and specifically their time in Europe. I suspect it’s because former road manager Sam Cutler is such good interview but also because that’s where most of the never before seen footage lied. Surprisingly there isn’t much new footage towards the end. I was even more perplexed as to why they included fan shot footage from the last show but didn’t include the pro-shot video which is readily available.
Divided into six chapters. The movie points it’s focus at six different topics around the Dead while moving through their 30 year career only moving back when it needs to within topic. Threaded throughout is archival footage of Jerry Garcia waxing poetically about the ideals of drugs, music, and what he hopes his legacy will be.
In addition to a wealth of new content, the soundtrack selection and visual artwork are outstanding. Amir and his team’s chose to soundtrack the film with concert recordings. They did so with period accuracy and a selective ear pulling the most gripping interpretations. The Dead’s music has always been more dynamic and emotional live and to use it was almost a parlor trick in how hypnotizing it is when accompanied with the narrative. Visually, Grateful Dead iconography can always be hit or miss. Being and early explorer or concert poster art and symbolism, the Dead’s art style stretches beyond dancing bears and lighting bolt skulls. Those that try to expand upon it may find their work jarring and out of place. The art direction hits the nail on the head. It’s clear that the people behind the film gave it the upmost respect to the fans to get it right.
I think this movie is beautiful and it rejuvenates why I loved this band. I wrote on a forum that we’ll continue to get the more tell-all stories as the surviving members move further down the road. And that’s fine, I’ll continue to read Grateful Dead news until it stops being written. But as Jerry hopes in the movie, it’s inspiring to see this continue on in some form or fashion. Whether it be looking at the band itself or what their music and legacy may become.