Grateful Dead Documentary ‘Long Strange Trip’ Will Make You a Deadhead

Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev on his 14-year journey to create the definitive documentary about the Grateful Dead.

Malcolm Lubliner/Getty

The first time a film crew set out to make a documentary about the Grateful Dead, it didn't end well.

The year was 1970 and Warner Brothers executive Joe Smith decided he needed a concert film to help sell the apparently unsellable band he had just signed to the record label. He wanted to do for The Dead what the Monterey Pop Festival movie had done for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin two years earlier. The label hired a crew to document the band's first trip to Europe but frontman Jerry Garcia didn’t like the idea of The Dead being captured for posterity so he slipped them some acid. Soon, the crew lost interest in making a comprehensible concert movie and instead shot reels and reels of unusable footage before packing up and going home.

Forty-seven years later, documentarian Amir Bar-Lev has achieved what those acid-fueled filmmakers couldn't with Long Strange Trip, a monster of a documentary with a daunting yet essential four-hour running time that began a limited theatrical run this weekend before hitting Amazon Prime’s streaming service on June 2nd. The film is so compelling, the experience so immersive, that it just might help add to the already enormous ranks of Deadheads across the world.

Amir Bar-Lev first got into the Grateful Dead as a Northern California teenager growing up in the 1980s. At that point, the band was past its ‘70s prime, but still touring the country at a nearly non-stop pace. In the years following Garcia’s premature death in 1995, he found himself uncomfortable with the way the band was being remembered.

“I always felt that the record needed a little bit of correcting,” Bar-Lev tells The Daily Beast. “The Grateful Dead have a lot of seriousness, in a way, for me, and they had kind of become cartoon versions of themselves over time.” He wanted to show the world that the Grateful Dead were more than the psychedelic dancing bear symbols that had come to represent them.

Bar-Lev’s breakthrough film The Tillman Story unpacked the martyrdom of NFL star-turned-U.S. Army ranger Pat Tillman. As Bar-Lev says, “This process to me was very similar to making the Tillman story, where you had a dead guy who had been mythologized. Part of what I was trying to do was give the body back to the loved ones.”  

That process began back in 2003, when Bar-Lev reached out to the Grateful Dead’s surviving members and pitched the idea of making a documentary that would tell a complete story about their journey. “Then, because they are an incredibly slow moving and somewhat dysfunctional organization, it took 11 years to actually get the thing off the ground,” he says. Another three years passed before the film first saw the light of day at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. Martin Scorsese’s decision to sign on as an executive producer was the “final piece of the puzzle” to getting it made.

“They also really don’t give a shit about publicity, and I think that’s to their great credit,” Bar-Lev says of the band. When he finally gained access to The Dead’s massive archives, he found the unfinished efforts of documentary film crews that had come before him. “They’re not out to tell their story, they’re still living their story,” he says. “It was always the role of the fans to think about posterity and their role was to be committed to the moment and continue to live in a series of perpetual nows.”

One of the ironies at the center of Long Strange Trip, and by extension the Grateful Dead, is the fact that Garcia was trying to create something impermanent while his fans were obsessively taping and cataloguing every performance, analyzing the setlists and debating their favorite live versions of songs. It’s a tradition that continues with jambands that followed in their wake like Phish.

“As a Deadhead, I’m really happy that there were tapers who had a different approach to the music than Jerry did,” Bar-Lev says. “Jerry basically said when I’m done with the music I don’t care what anybody does with it. I think there was a good, healthy symbiosis between the ephemeral now that the Grateful Dead were after and the posterity, the well-preserved artifacts that tapers and filmmakers like myself are interested in.”

“I think with anything, there’s a living and a dead part. And I think the Grateful Dead is alive and well in the life choices of millions of Deadheads,” he continues. “You can’t say that the way Al Franken is acting as a senator is not inflected by the Grateful Dead.” That long-time fan makes an appearance as a talking head in Long Strange Trip, rhapsodizing about his all-time favorite live version of the song “Althea.”

“In the mid-70s, there was this terror that somebody was going to dose the water supply with LSD. That’s happened, culturally,” he adds. “The Grateful Dead is in the culture now. And the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In order to make his film work, Bar-Lev not only needed the cooperation of the “core four” surviving band members — guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — but also the presence of Garcia, who died of a heart attack nearly 22 years ago. That meant uncovering archival footage of the band’s leader telling his own story the same way his bandmates do in contemporary interviews conducted by Bar-Lev.

Through those interviews, Bar-Lev says he wanted to demonstrate what a “thoughtful guy” Garcia really was. “He’s taken on this sort of stoner teddy bear persona that doesn’t give him the credit he deserves as a thinker,” he says. “People are very aware of the adulation around Jerry, but they may be less aware that he was very uncomfortable with it. He had this very refreshing distaste for attention.”

Rather than being “put up on a pedestal,” Bar-Lev says Garcia wanted to “form a partnership” with his audience. “That’s the Jerry Garcia that we all really love. And therein lies one of the paradoxes. The more the band acted cool and egalitarian, the more we admired them for that and wanted to shower them with more affection.”

“Whenever he was around a camera, he was genuinely having a conversation with the person in the room in a way that most rock stars don’t,” Bar-Lev says of Garcia. “But he was also, in some strange way, communicating with you over time. He was more aware of the fact that this stuff was going to be around after him than most interviewees. There are times when you feel like he’s looking directly at you.” For instance, in the 1970 footage in which both Garcia and the cameraman are tripping on acid, “you really feel as though he’s looking across time and engaging with you.”

Throughout the documentary, we are treated to never-before-seen clips of Garcia speaking about his life over time, including in an interview he did not long before his death for the AMC series The Movie That Changed My Life. Garcia chose the film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which he says simultaneously terrified and delighted him when he first saw it as a child not long after his father’s death.

“That was an unexpected discovery, to find this interview that he did towards the end of his life with AMC,” Bar-Lev recalls. “This was a key to understanding Jerry’s character. He resolved to embrace the Frankenstein monster even though it repelled him.”

What terrified Garcia about Frankenstein was the idea of a dead thing brought back to life. It’s a theme that pervades the documentary, including in another interview where Garcia discusses an epiphany he had about the Watts Towers during one of Ken Kesey’s mid-’60s Acid Test parties in San Francisco. The massive structures, which outsider artist Simon Rodia spent 33 years constructing in Los Angeles, remain intact today, despite the city’s early attempts to prove they were unsafe by conducting a stress test that attempted to physically pull them down. The towers were so strong that they broke the crane pulling them.

Garcia despised the idea of an artist leaving behind something “so solid you can’t tear it down,” as he says on camera in the film. “I see that as Jerry making a distinction between things that are living and things that are dead,” Bar-Lev adds, tying his film’s two most prominent metaphors together. “A corpse that is electrocuted like the Frankenstein monster is a dead thing. A monument, a frozen piece of art, is also a dead thing. And Jerry was interested in living things.”

“To my mind, the project of the Grateful Dead was thinking about how to create something that is alive,” he continues. “And if you apply that to being in a rock and roll band, it means you’re constantly approaching your music and trying to revitalize it and play it in a different way and not relying on the way you played it before. If you’re thinking about it as a cultural movement, you’re not putting boundaries around what it is and what it isn’t. You’re allowing it to morph and change into whatever it’s going to be based on whoever’s around. You’re deputizing the the collective to decide how it’s going to move into the future.”

Ultimately, The Dead may have created a movement so powerful that it can’t be destroyed, but, as Bar-Lev says, “Hopefully it isn’t frozen like the Watts Towers.”

After the documentary premiered at Sundance earlier this year, the living bandmates expressed concerns to Bar-Lev that he did not include enough material about how the band has carried on after Garcia’s death, a note that he incorporated, to a degree, in the version released in theaters.

While it may have been fitting to end the film with the band’s 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows from 2015, Bar-Lev does not, opting instead to mark Garcia’s death as the end of the Grateful Dead as true fans knew it. Speaking to the bandmates’ concerns, he notes that the situation is “a little bit delicate, obviously” before saying, “I totally understand that feeling and I just feel like I had to end the story at some point.”

“I always hoped that the film would end with a call to arms for the viewers,” he continues. “So that the audience would feel like whatever Jerry picked up from Jack Kerouac could be passed on to them and expressed any number of ways, not just musically. It was very important to me that the film end with a baton passed to the audience. And in order to do that correctly, you have to end with a death.”

“It needs a little bit of darkness,” he continues. “A guy did die. More than one.” In addition to Garcia’s death, Long Strange Trip explores the passing of original member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan as well as keyboardists Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland. “There is a thing in the Grateful Dead world where it seems impolitic, in a way, to talk about some of the mistakes that were made. I didn’t feel it was fair to the story to gloss over that.”

Even with its epic four-hour running time, it would have been impossible for Bar-Lev to make a documentary that feels completist, especially to those who lived through the events depicted. "The Grateful Dead is sort of a phenomenon that you cannot encapsulate in any one medium or any one event or any one film or recording," Phil Lesh told Rolling Stone recently. "It's great as far as it goes, but it's not the whole story."

Asked what he thinks Garcia would make of the documentary, Bar-Lev takes a long pause. “I don’t think that’s the right question to ask,” he says, eventually. “Jerry’s dead.”