It’s not a coincidence that Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary about The Grateful Dead runs as long as a typical Dead concert.
Long Strange Trip unwinds at just under four-hours. A fast paced and evocative look of the history of both The Dead and society in general over a period of four decades, LST engages the viewer regardless of their personal association of The Grateful Dead.
What do you really know about Jerry Garcia, or Bob Weir, or Robert Hunter, or Pigpen a.k.a. Ron McKernan, the first founding member of the GD to die? Perhaps not ironically, Pigpen was a victim of alcohol (March, 1973) and not psychedelic or opiate drugs.
The Grateful Dead actually broke up in 1975 but quickly got back together, says Bar-Lev to Free Press Houston during an interview at SXSW following the film’s regional premiere earlier this year.
“I’ve been working on the film for fourteen years,” says Bar-Lev. Not a documentarian to be second guessed, Bar-Lev has directed films as different as My Kid Could Paint That (2007) and The Tillman Story (2010).
“That’s when I first reached out to them about making the film. I’ve been working on it in earnest for four years,” he says. “There’s no way you could make a film like this without their support and participation. They opened up their vault to us. So we have all this footage that has been shot over the years, some of which is truly amazing. This is my seventh film, but there’s more remarkable archives than anything I’ve ever worked on.”
Amongst the clips that have never been seen before is footage of Jerry Garcia playing at Bridget [Barbara] Meier’s birthday party in 1961. Meier and Garcia stayed in touch and after Garcia’s marriage to Carolyn Adams ended in 1990, Garcia and Meier once again became an item. Another snippet shows the Great Pyramid of Giza as seen from an airplane flying the Dead and company to a concert in Egypt in the early 1970s.
Regarding the footage of Jerry and Meier when they reunited twenty-eight years later, Bar-Lev says: “They fell in love during the conversation and you can hear that on the tape. There’re tons of home movies, the band shot a lot of footage throughout their career.
“We put out a call to Dead-heads for their own footage, using social media. Amazing stuff came in, Super-8 footage that’s been sitting in people’s attics.
“The most amazing piece of archive that’s in the film, that almost becomes a film within the film, is a documentary crew that came before us in 1970 that were making an observational Don’t Look Back style vérité film. It’s beautifully shot until they go on stage and then the beautiful cinematography turns to crappy cinematography. We didn’t understand what we were looking at. We did some research and then we realize the camera crew has been pulled into the story so to speak,” says Bar-Lev.
In other words, they were dosed with LSD.
Long Strange Trip offers a sequence where the Dead put LSD in the coffee during the filming of the syndicated television show Playboy After Dark. “That’s another moment that has a metaphorical figurative resonance, because as Jerry said, ‘We turned a fake party into an authentic party.’ To my mind that’s what they did to America on a larger scale. They set a bar for how you go about being a rock star in an honest way,” says Bar-Lev, adding, “They did eventually realize that was a terrible thing to do to people.”
Long Strange Trip paints a masterful portrait of the Dead as well as the entire culture that sprang up around them.
“They only got rich after A Touch of Grey,” says Bar-Lev about their hit 1987 song that includes the lyrics “I will get by/I will survive.”
There are key moments in the film that are about this question of permanence. “The way the film starts is Jerry saying, ‘One of the most seminal moments of my life was seeing Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.’ His father had just died and seeing a dead being brought back to life terrified him,” says Bar-Lev. LST incorporates film footage of Frankenstein that fits in nicely with the evolution of the band. Another Frank, Senator Al Franken, talks about his time spent following the band.
At one point Garcia talks about being 20 years old and coming out of an acid test and going to see the Watts Towers in the morning.
“The Watts Towers were illegally put there by the artist and when the artist died the city came in with wreckers and tried to pull down the towers. But he had built them so well they couldn’t be torn down. So the city went the opposite way and put them in the tourist pamphlets.
“Jerry said, ‘I figure if I succeed as an individual artist I will have built something that can’t be torn down,’” says Bar-Lev.
“What you take away from the Frankenstein and Watts Towers footage is that Jerry was solely committed to the moment and didn’t care at all about the future.
“But it’s a different way of thinking about the future than the guys who built the pyramids. It’s a different way of thinking about cheating mortality,” says Bar-Lev.
Wanting to tell as compelling a story as possible, Bar-Lev showed his collaborators the recent OJ: Made in America and used the dexterity of that seven-hour-plus film to convince them that making the film longer was the route to take.
“The Grateful Dead is a virus that has been unleashed on the culture and it’s carefully calibrated giving its maximum lifespan. And I think that’s really neat,” says Bar-Lev.
Long Strange Trip plays in select theaters on the night of Thursday, May 25. After that, Long Strange Trip will be available starting June 2 on Amazon Prime Video.
Long Strange Trip: An Interview with Amir Bar-Lev This was reposted for my personal reading use