On June 2nd, the long awaited, Scorsese-produced, Grateful Dead documentary titled, “Long Strange Trip” finally began streaming on Amazon Prime. I have to admit, this is something I’ve been waiting for for a couple of years now so when I got the notification that it aired, I planned my entire weekend around it. That sounds dramatic, but I did make plans to see it as soon as possible.
I’ll begin by saying that the Grateful Dead is a band I’ve held near and dear to my heart since I was a kid going through my dad’s music collection. The dreamy introduction to The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion) still sends me back to middle school and the first time I found my favorite bootleg (Paris, May 3rd, 1972) remains one of my favorite moments in collecting music.
With that said, Long Strange Trip is about so much more than a band. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, the six-part Documentary series takes viewers on a journey behind the scenes of American popular culture as it evolved throughout the late twentieth century with its focus on the Grateful Dead whose tenure lasted from 1965-1995 (and that’s it, Dead & Company is a bastardization). This is probably the best creative decision Bar-Lev could’ve made during the production of the film as most deadheads know all the minor anecdotes and details on the band’s career. What fans didn’t need from Long Strange Trip was another retelling of the same old stories.
What Bar-Lev relies on, is allowing the members of the band, family and road crew, along with some true deadheads, to speak in their own words on what the band represented and what they accomplished through music. In the beginning, Dead biographer, Dennis McNally, has a key quote, “It’s a real challenge if you’re not already a deadhead to love the Grateful Dead because there’s so much distraction. But if you Ignore the rabid fans, and ignore the entire lack of all the expected elements of American entertainment, THEN you will find, there’s a richness that fills your soul. The Grateful Dead explored freedom.” Bar-Lev does a great job of directing viewers away from the Dead’s façade that’s thought of when they’re mentioned. There isn’t any talk about dancing bears or tie dye t-shirts, but rather the freedom to create one’s own reality without the rules of another.
Of course, the aforementioned anecdotes are part of what make the Dead such a fun band so some are tossed in intermittently without giving away too much information. The little ambiguity surrounding the band is still needed to keep fans coming back for more.
One of the best parts about the documentary is the how the Grateful Dead are brought down to earth. By that I mean the band never meant to be made into deities and yet, fans still did so. Sam Cutler, the Dead’s road manager in the early seventies goes as far as calling the band stupid after he recollects a silly conversation with lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia. I have to agree with Cutler to a degree, while the band did some spectacular things, at the end of the day they were still a rock band like any other which the majority of the interviewees in Long Strange Trip seem to concur.
Stylistically, Bar-Lev’s team ties everything together seamlessly. It wouldn’t be a Dead documentary without Garcia’s presence so archived interviews are used including one where he talks about Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein and its influence on him as a youngster. There’s also a lot of artwork depicting the skeletons that served inspiration for the bands overall aesthetic both visually and lyrically all thirty years. Some of the people interviewed, including Minnesota senator Al Franken, former president of Warner Brothers Records Joe Smith, and roadie Steve Parish, all provided astounding information on their relationship to the band, however I would’ve left John Perry Barlow out. His interview came across like that guy that graduated high school two years ago but still hangs out in the parking lot.
In summary, The Grateful Dead are a truly incredible band and there is so much that can be said about their music, but most of it has already been said. Amir Bar-Lev instead directs a documentary about a band that shifts the paradigm of American popular culture and sparks one of the last great adventures through time. As Hell Of A Thing’s resident deadhead, I only wish there were more than six episodes.
Click here to see the Trailer.
– By Mike Metcalf