Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Tales of Deadheads, division, bad rap, dictators, and ‘Monsters’

A scene from Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead.”
A scene from Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead.”Amazon Prime Video

At a little more than four hours running time, “Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead,” a six-part documentary about the Grateful Dead directed by Amir Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story; “Happy Valley”) and produced by Martin Scorsese, is almost as long as one of the band’s trademark instrumental improvisations. But there is a lot of mileage to cover in the 30-year odyssey of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most influential and beloved bands.

Like most artistic collaborations, the Grateful Dead confronted creative rifts, disruptive personal ambitions, and internal strife. But, as Bar-Lev reveals, these differences melded into artistic inspiration and created a fusion of folk, jazz, R&B, avant-garde experimentation, rock and world music that earned them the loyalty of millions. Much of their success was due to the mellowing, enigmatic leadership of Jerry Garcia (he died in 1995 at 53) and probably more than a few tokes.


An incorrigible Deadhead himself, Bar-Lev nonetheless maintains a sympathetic objectivity as he surveys the band’s course and their contributions to the counterculture. To do so he has included interviews with surviving members of the band, roadies, family members, fans, and pop music experts as well as videos of memorable live performances and rare archival footage.

“Long Strange Trip” screens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Showcase Cinemas de Luxe in Revere, and on May 30 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. It will be available on Amazon Prime Video on June 2.

For more information go to www.longstrangetripdoc.com.

War’ craft

It seems obvious to us that whenever the drapes are drawn at the White House, people will want to see in. Boston-based filmmaker Michael Kirk (“The Choice 2016” and “Divided States of America”) takes a deep look at the shadowy figure of President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was involved in such policy measures as the Muslim travel ban, and examines his bitter antipathy to radical Islam, liberals, and even rivals within the White House. Kirk’s film is called “Bannon’s War,” and in it Kirk interviews Washington insiders, journalists, and Bannon’s previous associates at Breitbart News to investigate the motives and modus operandi of the man who has shaped much of Trump’s politics and governing style.


“Bannon’s War” can be seen on PBS’s “Frontline” at 10 p.m. Tuesday.

For more information go to pbs.org/frontline.

Hard to beat

Far from being the product of a single milieu, hip-hop music has proven to be the medium by which the oppressed and marginalized everywhere have found expression.

Such has been the experience of the Asian-American rap musicians in Salima Koroma’s documentary “Bad Rap.” They include the groups Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks. Their styles range from crowd-pleasing battle rhymes to arch irony, assaultive visuals, and anguished cries of moral conflict. All intensified by the animus of being outsiders, not just from society at large but from the hip-hop establishment as well.

“Bad Rap” premieres on VOD on Tuesday.

For more information go to www.badrapfilm.com.

Remembrance of tyrants past

When a dictator is in charge, at least you have some clarity. You have an emblematic, autocratic figurehead to unite around — or oppose. Someone who can maintain law and order, though at a price.

On the streets of Belgrade in 1994, at the height of the internecine wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, that late country’s supreme leader for almost three decades and dead since 1980, magically appears in full regalia.


The man, in fact, is an impostor dressed up by Serbian filmmaker Zelimir Zilnik for his documentary “Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time” (1994). Despite the ruse, people from every level of Serbian society flock around the faux Tito to share with him — and Zilnik — their concerns, complaints, and hopes for the future.

After Serbia ceased to be part of the once despised, but united, communist nation, the resultant independent states engaged in unremitting civil war. Among those interviewed are some who have been caught up in the carnage, such as refugees from the warfare in Bosnia and soldiers who have returned from the front. Given the state of things, maybe they’re thinking a return to the Tito regime might not be such a bad idea.

And so today’s would-be strongmen should note, if at first you don’t succeed. . .

“Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time” screens on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive.

For more information go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2017marmay/zilnik.html#marble.

Testing the power of cinema

Can a course in screenwriting rehabilitate youthful offenders guilty of heinous crimes? Is it a miscarriage of justice to attempt it? These are some of the questions raised in Ben Lear’s documentary “They Call Us Monsters.”

Three California juveniles awaiting trial enroll in such a class taught by producer Gabe Cowan. They certainly have a lot of material to draw on. Jarad faces 200 years to life for four attempted murders; Juan faces 90 to life for first-degree murder. Both were arrested when they were 16. Antonio faces 90 to life for two attempted murders. He was arrested at 14.


Barely starting out in life, these kids now seem likely to be spending the remainder of it behind bars. On the other hand, the victims — those who survived — have stories to tell as well. There’s the 17-year-old whom Jarad shot — now paralyzed and expected to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

“They Call Us Monsters” can be seen Monday at 10 p.m. on PBS’s “Independent Lens.”

For more information go to www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/they-call-us-monsters.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.