Years in the making, Amir Bar-Lev's marathon documentary on the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, was acquired earlier this year by Amazon, and will go live on Amazon later this Spring. It made its big screen debut at this year's Sundance Film festival, and those of us in the Bay Area were treated to the first of two big screen previews of the film Saturday night at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Film Festival. The sold-out theatre was, not surprisingly, crammed with aging Deadheads, and the majority of the center seats on the floor were reserved for contributors to the film, band members and film Festival staff and supporters.
The four-hour film was presented as six cable-ready episodes, broken by a half-hour intermission near the midpoint. Although the narrative is essentially chronological, Bar-Lev chose not to take a purely historical approach, instead framing the thrust of the narrative as an exposition of Jerry Garcia's character, how central he was to the soul of the band, and how he eventually became a victim of the group's massive success in their last decade. Bar-Lev focused on Garcia's enormous appetite for two types of stimulus, things that were fun and those that were weird, and a theme that was referenced through the entire narrative was his fascination with Frankenstein's monster, particularly as portrayed in one of his favorite films, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Fun was most evident in the film's first half, which chronicled Garcia's early immersion into the world of bluegrass banjo, the assembly of the group's initial lineup through the folk music and post-beat hipster scene in Palo Alto and vicinity during the early 1960s, and their emergence as one of the most creative and ultimately enduring of the rock bands that were instrumental in defining San Francisco of the emerging youth culture in the mid-sixties. The second half detailed the bands challenges with scale, starting with the enormity of the Wall of Sound and its logistical nightmares that ultimately led to the band's eighteen month 'retirement' in the mid 1970s. Returning to the road on a smaller scale, the band gradually attracted a growing following during the next decade that ultimately led to even bigger logistical problems as they found a large gypsy community of fans that literally followed them from show to show, an issue exacerbated by their having their first hit single in 1987.
During that same interval, the band, and Garcia in particular, became drawn into the world of less user-friendly drugs, notably cocaine and heroin, as both the hallmarks of financial success and as a panacea to escape the pressures to maintain the income that would allow the band's extended community to continue to enjoy the lifestyles to which they had become accustomed. Bar-Lev basically portrays Garcia as the martyr that had to carry the burden of this stress, continuing to tour extensively even as his health grew increasingly worse, except for a brief respite in the late 1980s when he was drug free and took up scuba diving.
This story has been told before in a variety of print and visual media, including The Other One, the recent documentary that focused on Bob Weir, but what informs this film is the rich catalogue of video and still images, many not previously seen, that are used to drive the narrative. A particularly vibrant segment is some film commissioned by Warner Brothers, who asked a film crew to travel to Britain with the band to document their performance at a 1970 outdoor festival in Newcastle-Upon Lyme. What began as a routine assignment for the crew was derailed as they were dosed by the band, with the expected influence on the quality of their photojournalism.
Another rich component of Long Strange Trip is running contemporary commentary by numerous talking heads within and around the band, including lengthy interviews with all four surviving members, as well as interviews with Garcia's road manager Steve Parish, lyricist John Barlow, publishing company manager Alan Trist, publicist Dennis McNally and, most notably, some very entertaining commentary from the loquacious Sam Cutler, who served as the band's road manager from 1970-74 after meeting them during planning for the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.
Even at four hours, the film omits some significant parts of the band's story. Keyboardists Tom Constanten and Vince Welnick are never mentioned, and keystone events like Woodstock, Watkins Glen, and Englishtown are not referred to either. Picky Deadhead quibbles aside, this is a tremendous documentary that captures the essence of the Dead, their approach to their art and their community, and will provide a rich tableau of what made the band the unique aggregation that it was. If the opportunity affords itself, it is well worth seeing the film on the big screen, and the Meyer sound system at the Castro, crafted by one of the wizards that brought the Dead's music to a new level of sonic excellence, cast the movie in its best possible light.