"Long Strange Trip" is a 4-hour documentary that looks at the Grateful Dead.
Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev is no stranger to ambitious projects.
He's given us a look inside the complexities behind a 4-year-old painting savant (“My Kid Could Paint That”), explored the hero complex bestowed on an NFL star who went to fight for his country after 9/11 (“The Tillman Story"), and was front-and-center while the legacy of Joe Paterno and his beloved Penn State football program crumbled before our eyes (“Happy Valley”).
However, none of those compare to taking on the Grateful Dead, and its lead guitarist and figurehead Jerry Garcia, in his latest movie, "Long Strange Trip."
“This is the film I’m most proud of,” Bar-Lev told Business Insider. “On some level, this is my life’s work.”
For over a decade, Bar-Lev, an admitted “Dead Head,” tried to convince the band that he was the director worthy of making the definitive film on the legendary band. It finally happened, but there were many twists in the tale of how “Long Strange Trip” was made, including how Bar-Lev landed the job at long last.
The Grateful Dead's original plan was to have a 90-minute documentary to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the band (which would have been released in 2015). But like the unconventional way the Grateful Dead operates, “Long Strange Trip” became a daunting task to accomplish from its inception.
Before Bar-Lev came on, other directors tried to tell the story and had to back out, in some cases because of all the moving parts that surround the band. At one point, acclaimed director Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”) had beat out Bar-Lev to make the movie. However, Bar-Lev said he later learned Van Sant bowed out. That left Bar-Lev as the only willing director to take it on.
Bar-Lev didn’t just roll with the band’s quirks, but also convinced his investors to go beyond the 50th anniversary plans, and make a movie that was hours longer.
After four years making the movie (three of them just editing), he premiered “Long Strange Trip” at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in its final 4-hour form. Amazon Studios acquired it and has made it into a six-part documentary (currently available on Prime) that masterfully traces the life of this complex band that was birthed during the LSD craze of the mid 1960s, and by the 1980s was worshiped by millions.
A highlight of this deep dive into the Dead is the treasure trove of things Bar-Lev and his team kept coming across while making it.
“We found never-before-seen footage and photos and audio recordings in people's attics and storage lockers,” he said. “We had a vast network of people looking for this stuff.”
Over the years, as Bar-Lev kept convincing the producers that the movie could be longer, it gave him the ability to delve into aspects of the Dead that wouldn’t have worked in a 90-minute documentary. One example is looking at the loyal roadies tasked to build and break down the “Wall of Sound” every show during the band’s 1974 tour. The footage and interviews of the massive construction, which at the time was the largest concert sound system ever built, is a remarkable sight for newbies to the band — and a wicked acid flashback for the Dead Heads who were there.
The length of time it took to complete the movie also gave Bar-Lev the ability to convince notoriously camera shy Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter to go on camera. But instead of attempting to give Grateful Dead fans a glimpse inside the man responsible for the lyrics to some of the band's most famous songs, Bar-Lev used the opportunity to show the audience that this is a different kind of rock band movie.
“I realized there wasn't much I really wanted him to answer,” Bar-Lev said of talking to Hunter. “So I asked him a question I knew he hates to answer which was what's the song 'Dark Star' mean? And he did exactly what I hoped he would do, it provoked his ire and he answered in a very funny way and then basically kicked me out of his dressing room.”
The method to Bar-Lev's madness here was that he thought there were some things about the Dead that should never be explored, because if they were a part of the beloved mystique of the band would be lost forever.
“The question at the heart of the Grateful Dead is what does it all mean? That should never be answered, because once it's gone the magic is gone,” Bar-Lev said. “So we tried to make a point of that when interviewing Hunter. By exactly putting the wrong question to the wrong person.”
What sets the movie apart from most documentaries about rock bands is that “Long Strange Trip” is as unconventional as its subject. Though Bar-Lev tracked down the existing band members for interviews, along with a slew of others who were in their orbit through the decades, the movie is filled with Easter Eggs for the most obsessed Dead Head, jump cuts in the story’s timeline, and appearances by the Frankenstein monster.
This last one is probably Bar-Lev’s most radical storytelling device. Using masterful editing, the iconic horror figure that Jerry Garcia loved as a child is highlighted throughout the movie for major moments in the band's existence.
“The appearance of the Frankenstein monster changes over the period of the film,” Bar-Lev explained.
“The first time he shows up Jerry is terrified of the monster,” Bar-Lev said (and as we learn in a Garcia interview Bar-Lev’s team uncovered that was done before his death in 1995). In the interview, Garcia said one of his all-time favorite movies as a kid was the classic comedy/horror “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” At that point he was scared of the monster.
“The second time he shows up Jerry identifies with the monster,” Bar-Lev said. In the doc, Bar-Lev uses footage from 1931’s “Frankenstein” — of the monster smoking and playing a violin — to mirror Garcia forming the band.
“The third time he shows up it’s when Jerry’s daughter says that the fandom around the Grateful Dead has become too much for Jerry, and now he identifies with Doctor Frankenstein.” We then see “Frankenstein” footage of the doctor looking exhausted as the monster can no longer be controlled.
“The audience might not know it, but ‘Frankenstein’ is charting our progress,” Bar-Lev said. “Every time the monster shows up the audience achieves another milestone in the greater understanding of the movie.”
That’s what Bar-Lev hopes audiences get from watching “Long Strange Trip.”
“If I’ve succeeded then you get to the end of the movie and you don’t just have any more questions about why people love the Grateful Dead, you’re not even interested in the question anymore, “ Bar-Lev said. “My greatest hope is for the time you’re watching it you’re participating in a Grateful Dead story.”