Few bands have been as chronicled and analyzed as the Grateful Dead. For writers who look into American culture and the 1960s, and for people who just like to talk about music, the Dead and their diehard fans, Deadheads, are ideal subjects. So many of the seeds planted in the early years of the 20th-century counterculture — mind-expanding drugs, Kerouac-styled road trips, guitar jamming that defies convention — burst into bloom through the Dead scene. They decayed there, too, as drug abuse and commercial pressures got the better of too many. Even with Jerry Garcia now 22 years gone, the band members can still trigger a squall of heady think pieces when they tour, publish books, or release particularly precious old concerts.
So at this point in the endless scroll of Dead impressions, it’s hard to imagine a brand new take on the Grateful Dead, or Garcia, or their seminal bluegrass influences, or their reverberating impact on other jam bands, or the raging fandom that has traversed a number of generations at this point. They are pinned and wriggling on the wall, under the entry “Hippie Jam Band” in the dictionary.
“Long Strange Trip,” director Amir Bar-Lev’s vital new four-hour documentary available Friday on Amazon, doesn’t quite hoist the Dead trip onto a new level of understanding. But it tells the story beautifully, organically, and, by the end, tenderly, as it moves through six thematic “acts.” The film does everything right, as it refuses to stick slavishly to chronology, as it doesn’t strain to be all-inclusive and even leaves out Woodstock and Altamont, and as it presumes interest and knowledge by the viewer instead of coming on like a textbook. Bar-Lev dodges or minimizes the many hackneyed clichés about San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the ritualistic aspect of the shows, focusing instead on killer interviews (including many archival chats with Garcia), concert material from all eras, and remarkable home-movie footage.
The clips from Garcia’s early career are particularly mesmerizing, as they sometimes appear close by the older, grizzled Garcia. They give us a tall, thin guy with a thicket of black hair and eyes that always seem to resolve into wryness. There’s nothing about the young Garcia that suggests a desire to be the center of attention, never mind what he wound up being — a kind of messiah to the lost. In a scene in which the band is using nitrous oxide in the recording studio, he’s a goofball; in another clip, he stares into the camera lens and makes childlike faces and sticks his tongue out. Watching him play onstage early on, particularly in clips from the chaotic acid tests begun by Dead pal Ken Kesey, you can see pure enthusiasm for the guitar and for the band’s musical conversation on his face, a joy that, once the audiences were stadium-size, became less apparent.
Garcia’s comments in “Long Strange Trip” are also fascinating, both for their self-aware wisdom and, in hindsight, their irony. At one point, asked about the intensity of Deadhead adoration, the iconoclast shrugs and says, “I’ll put up with it until they come for me with the cross and the nails.” They didn’t come to crucify Garcia at the end, but their need for him, along with the financial needs of people working in the Grateful Dead organization, kept him from leaving the band. Some of the clearest views of Garcia come from Barbara Meier, a girlfriend in the early 1960s and then again in the 1990s. She remembers the older Garcia fantasizing about dropping out of the band and living on the money he made from Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream — but then concluding, “Do you know how many people are depending on this show going down the road?” Garcia’s daughter Trixie recalls feeling she had to compete with the fans for her father’s attention.
The list of interviewees is impressive. Along with Meier, we hear from road crew stalwart Steve Parish, songwriter John Barlow, one-time road manager Sam Cutler, Dead historian Dennis McNally, US Senator Al Franken (who gushes about his favorite version of “Althea”), and members of the band, including drummer Mickey Hart, who says sadly about Garcia, “He was a really cool guy, you know, until he killed himself.” The list of people not included, for one reason or another, is also impressive. Garcia’s three wives aren’t here; neither is Tom Constanten, an early member of the band, and Bruce Hornsby, a later player in the band. But it hardly matters, particularly since “Long Strange Trip” doesn’t aim for anything resembling completism.
The movie is a love letter, an artful interpretation, an epic portrait of an institution, a celebration of the music, and, at the end, a cry of grief.
LONG STRANGE TRIP
On Amazon, available Friday
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.