The ‘Long Strange Trip’ of Amir Bar-Lev and the Grateful Dead

Documentarian and long time fan and admirer of the Grateful Dead Amir Bar-Lev knows that the idea of a four hour documentary chronicling the lucrative, beloved, and artistically forward American rock band sounds daunting and overwhelming to the uninitiated. The culture that surrounded the Grateful Dead at the peak of their popularity – as well as the psychedelic, bluesy tunes they cranked out every night on their seemingly never ending tours – are like doctorate level classes in musical theory, appreciation, and history. There might not have been a more truly and uniquely American rock band than the Grateful Dead, but “getting into” their extensive catalogue comes with a huge learning curve.

Mere moments into Ber-Lev’s gargantuan and thoroughly enjoyable Long Strange Trip (screening for one night only on Thursday, May 24 in select American cities, opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, and making its way worldwide on Amazon Prime on June 2), band biographer, publicist, and historian Dennis McNally – who had his defining biography of the band published in 2002 – says in an interview that “it’s a real challenge to love the Grateful Dead if you’re not already a Deadhead.” It’s a sentiment that I like to think that fans and non-fans of the Grateful Dead could equally agree on, but what Bar-Lev accomplishes with Long Strange Trip is nothing short of miraculous: a mythology defying, laid back, easy to understand look at one of the most exhaustively documented bands in musical history.

Full disclosure (since I assume a majority of the people reading this are already well read when it comes to the Dead): I don’t consider myself a fan of the Grateful Dead by any stretch. Like most kids who grew up in the 1980s, I think my familiarity with Jerry Garcia’s band of merry musical pranksters began and ended with their only Billboard Hot 100 track “Touch of Grey” and a core group of friends and acquaintances who would come to school wearing hemp necklaces with the Dead’s instantly recognizable skull and lightning bolt logo on a charm in the centre or wearing tie dye T-shirts with a happy looking, acid tripping bear on the back. I had friends who could talk circles around me when it came to the Grateful Dead, but with their talk about specific kinds of dancing and what bootleg tapes had the best audio quality, these were conversations I mentally checked out of immediately because they sounded so overwhelming to think about. Most of these (then) young fans of the Grateful Dead that I knew had siblings or other close relatives that got them excited about the band, something that one of Bar-Lev’s interview subjects in the film openly states is how many people came to love the group; like it became a tradition passed down through generations.

I had no such initiation or closeness to them, but I always understood the artistic importance of Garcia and the Grateful Dead on an academic level, which does come with a certain amount of appreciation for what the band accomplished over their thirty plus years together. It wasn’t until Bar-Lev’s inviting and comprehensive Long Strange Trip that I finally “got it,” something that I told him immediately upon meeting him for our interview over lunch this past April following the film’s international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary festival in Toronto.

“Thanks for saying that,” the filmmaker says with a warm smile, gentle chuckle, and a handshake. “You’re actually our target audience, even more so than Grateful Dead fans. I’m trying to speak to people who maybe didn’t get the band why there are people who love the band.”

Bar-Lev, who also directed The Tillman Story, Happy Valley, and My Kid Could Paint That, does with documentary conventions in his biographical motion picture what the Grateful Dead did for music. Long Strange Trip starts down its lengthy road by exploring the band’s early days – including a stint as a literal jugband blues outfit – and how Ken Kesey, the Acid Tests, and Jack Kerouac influenced the playful spirits of the band’s core membership. From that initial set-up, Bar-Lev allows things to get a bit weirder and a bit more free associative. It stays on a timeline, but many of his interview subjects, including band members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, share seemingly tangential anecdotes (like the band sabotaging their own documentary crew, getting their name randomly out of the dictionary, or spiking the punch at a Playboy Mansion party with psychedelics) that are actually intrinsically tied to the personality and anarchic sprit of a band of gleeful shit disturbers.

Part of what makes such a lengthy documentary seem so refined is that Bar-Lev and his team have narrowed down the number of voices speaking on behalf of the Dead’s reputation and history to a core group of only seventeen interviews subjects across four hours. The people selected by Bar-Lev are those who have either had the most experience with the band (and are still around to talk about it) or those with the most intriguing perspectives. That makes Long Strange Trip a lot less overwhelming and a lot more inviting to the uninitiated. The interviews play like a reflection of the band the film seeks to chronicle: a bunch of people working together with their own specifically groovy sensibilities and various musical influences to create a genuine work of art that works better as a whole than it does in parts.

Amir Bar-Lev

“The idea was always to make the best FILM possible, and whenever that aspiration was in conflict with telling the exhaustive history, the film always won out,” the director says of his decision to keep the number of interviews used in the film to a tasteful minimum instead of a sprawling maximum. “We never felt beholden to working our way through this story in a step-by-step, exhaustive way. We cast with the same concerns that any filmmaker would cast: who’s dynamic? Who’s a great storyteller? Who has interesting insights? We always knew this was a really long story, and in order to keep people interested, the film had to continually evolve. We really borrowed our approach from theatre, in a way, by just introducing new voices and performers that would take things in different directions. But you really have to get to know someone for a while before they can start playing with the other folks.”

“Another criterion was that I feel like films work best if they’re character based. In order to meet these people as characters, you have to visit with them and understand them as people first. Then they can interact with each other and talk you through the story, but you have to meet them and get to know them before you could make that happen. We would create these visits with people, and sometimes we would make exceptions to our own rules, but mostly we would just meet them and eventually just keep attaching them to the trunk of the story. It’s amazing how much time you can purchase from the audience if you do that. If someone was ever getting tired, we wanted to have someone in our film that could pop up and suddenly there was an entirely new take or perspective. There are some people who don’t join the story of the Grateful Dead until about twenty years in, and they’re naturally going to have a different approach to the story than some of the other cast members.”

Long Strange Trip, other than allowing the surviving members of the Grateful Dead tell their story in their own words on camera without the fear of being taken out of context, includes some unique and special perspectives on the band’s history. I never knew that comedian, writer, and senator Al Franken was a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, but he appears late in the film to wax rhapsodic on some of his favourite recordings and debate Bar-Lev on some of their merits. Former tour manager Sam Cutler, a grizzled old Brit who still travels around in his van, will be a character that viewers won’t ever forget thanks to his blunt statements about the band’s successes and missteps. There’s even input from Trixie Garcia, Jerry’s daughter, and the moving story of Brigid Meier, one of Jerry’s first and last girlfriends, and someone who was there for some of the toughest periods of Jerry’s life.

This diversity of voices and a wealth of previously unseen and unheard archival materials are important pieces of the filmmaking puzzle for Bar-Lev. Many people, fans included, have placed Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead upon a high pedestal and such reverence tends towards unhealthy or unproductive mythologizing. With Long Strange Trip, everyone involved wanted the history to be as organic as possible, which is befitting of one of the most publicity averse bands to ever become financially successful without many hit records to their name.

“You’re dealing with subject matter that has already been well traveled upon,” Bar-Lev says, explaining his approach to the story of the band, and how his presentation serves to make the band relevant to contemporary viewers. “We set our goal to burnish this mythology and give it life again to make it feel vital, and to us it is vital. Even for me as a parent, the kinds of things that the Grateful Dead aspired towards are the kinds of things I hope my kids can aspire towards. As a person who takes part in culture, I feel that some of the things that I loved about the Grateful Dead as a kid are even more important today. As a culture, we’ve veered even further away from how we used to consume and admire culture. I wanted the story to feel vital, and the way to do that is by not being slavishly attentive to being comprehensive.”

Deadheads in the Taper’s Section at an outdoor venue, late 1980s. Photographer: Michael Conway. Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

It’s also hard to explain the Grateful Dead to a new generation of viewers who can’t experience or hope to replicate what it was like to see the band in its prime musically and at the height of their popularity culturally. Going to a Dead show was truly one of those “you really had to be there” experiences, and no amount of tapes could ever approximate the experience. Bar-Lev know that they’re a hard act to talk about, but that’s also what allows him as a filmmaker to ask more interesting questions about the nature of his own work and process.

“It’s a challenge as a filmmaker or as a journalist to talk about the Grateful Dead, which is a thing that’s really experiential. That’s something we always grappled with, and it turned out to be easier to do than we expected because Jerry and the band constantly wrestled with the question. There’s a great story where Jerry says that if he succeeds as an artist that something would be left over after he’s gone, and he didn’t want that. He wanted to have fun. Already, the gauntlet has been thrown to you as a storyteller, and as a guy who’s preserving these things for the future. You even have to wrestle if there should even BE a film about the Grateful Dead. (laughs) I think that’s a fun place to be because you’re dealing with interesting questions.”

Jerry Garcia performing during the Grateful Dead’s first concert with the Wall of Sound at The Cow Palace in Daly City, California 3/23/1974 Photographer: Peter Simon. Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.

Even harder to replicate – although devotees and audiophiles have tried for decades – is the sound of what it was like to experience the Dead live. The Grateful Dead were never known as a studio band, and their own record label saw them more as a long term investment than an act that would sell millions of copies whenever an album dropped. Live performance was the main reason why the Grateful Dead were such a counter-cultural supernova. They invented their own touring wall-of-sound, an impressive, elaborate rig that gave sound engineers around the world cases of the vapours upon seeing it in all its monstrous glory. No one can ever go back to experience something like that in person, so one of the biggest challenges for Bar-Lev and his team was to try and create an experience for the audience that could help replicate the intricacies of the Dead’s jams.

“I’m so proud of my team in that regard,” he enthuses, clearly energized by the prospect of getting to talk about the construction of the film’s sound design for what he says is the first time anyone has asked. “The financier of this film was so extremely patient and generous. This was supposed to be a ninety minute film that was ready for the fiftieth anniversary of the band, and that was years ago. (laughs) I basically barricaded myself in the house as a hostage of the film, and he had a lot of patience. By the time we got to the mix, I said to the mix team – Bob Chefalas, Jacob Ribicoff, Ben Holiday, and all of the other brilliant people working with them – to mix the film in a way they always wanted to mix a film. The amount of attention they put into recreating the sounds of what actually happened was awe inspiring. In the film, there’s a scene that takes place at a zoo, and it goes by like that (snaps), but at one point I came in and saw them arguing over what kind of penguin they saw so they could get just the right sound effect. (laughs) There was just such loving detail and time that they put into it, and not just because they were looking for remuneration or to be recognized, but as a means of paying it forward to showcase what things would have been like for future audiences. I think they were inspired by the Grateful Dead, even though they weren’t Deadheads, either.”

“In terms of the nuts and bolts of it, the Dead’s archivist, David Lemieux, who’s a Canadian, sort of smuggled out to me, without too many other people knowing, the stems of the music, because in ‘Grateful Dead Land,’ it’s always better to seek forgiveness than permission. (laughs) The stems are the studio songs that haven’t been mixed down to two tracks, but kept in their 12 or 24 track discreet channels, so you can remix the music and make it sound totally different, and you could use it in the way that a film score works, say if you want to bring a piece of music in to accentuate something. And with a 5.1 and 7.1 mix, you can send those channels around, so that Jerry is over there and Bob is over here and something else is going on over on the other side, and you can feel like you’re inside the music, and that’s something we did a lot of. There’s a quote from Emily Dickinson at the beginning of the movie about the carriage of time and mortality moving us down the line into oblivion, so we wanted to have that happen, too, in the film. If there was a car, train, plane, or bus on screen, it was going to go throughout the entire theatre, so it felt like you had the long black train coming at you.”

Jerry Garcia performing with the Grateful Dead at Front Amphitheater, Stanford University 4/30/1988. Photographer: Jon Sievert. Courtesy Amazon Prime Video

Our conversation turns to how I saw the unique structure of Long Strange Trip. I said that it felt like the first two hours of the film played out like a history of the band, the third hour examined the Grateful Dead’s cultural impact and the influence of their fans, and the final hour as a loving tribute to the late Jerry Garcia. Bar-Lev was intrigued by my assessment, and while he said that’s not necessarily an incorrect take on Long Strange Trip, it wasn’t how he envisioned the film in his mind. But what’s great about the Grateful Dead – a band whose front-man was inspired by everything from classic literature to Abbot and Costello – is that as long as the listener or viewer is paying attention, there aren’t many incorrect readings of their work, and the film serves as a reflection of that, much in the same way that a great piece of art should and often does mean different things to different people.

“I think you have a great take on it, but that’s not how I thought of it, but I can definitely see how someone could see it that way. How we thought about it was a bit more novelistic. I studied religion in college, and specifically what I studied was the role of mystics in history, and how they influenced institutionalized religion. Once you start thinking of things in that kind of anthropological way, you start seeing it everywhere, not only in religion, but also in culture. There’s always an inciting moment of freedom where someone steps outside of the established rules of their given moment in time, and those moments get sort of fossilized, or turn into doctrine, if we’re talking about religion, and you can see that in anything from religion to music to skateboarding.”

“I’ve always been interested in those kinds of moments, and I wanted to start with a cultural supernova – in this case, Ken Kesey and the Acid Tests – and then see how it plays out in time. You said yourself that you could come at the Grateful Dead from a bunch of different ways, and that’s exactly the reason why you can still have the Grateful Dead mentioned on something like CNBC as having great business practices, and have people like me don’t get that about them. The heterogeneity of the Grateful Dead is by design because as it moved from the inciting thing that happened into something that started to be adopted by more and more people. Nobody ever stepped in to say ‘This is Grateful Dead’ or ‘This is not Grateful Dead,’ and that’s what’s so interesting about the Grateful Dead. As it grew, and grew, and grew, and started being expressed in all these different ways, with Jerry basically guiding it, there were never any moments from my religious perspective as being like some sort of religious war, like watching two sects of Christianity battling it out over who was more Christian. Jerry always saw the Grateful Dead as a pluralistic thing that was probably going to die by collapsing on itself at a certain point because no one was there to say what it should or shouldn’t be. That is why it’s still alive today. It can’t be killed. It’s everywhere.”

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.