Review: ‘Long Strange Trip’

Hot Docs 2017

7 mins read

Long Strange Trip
(USA, 240 min.)
Dir. Amir Bar-Lev
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)


One can’t help but appreciate the nod to the longevity of The Grateful Dead in the running time of Long Strange Trip. This epic four-hour rock doc is a cradle to grave saga of one of the most peculiar success stories in American music. Fans of the band are bound to relish all 240 minutes of this amped-up archival feat, but one doesn’t need to be a Deadhead to enjoy the show. Even if one knows Jerry Garcia primarily as the inspiration for a flavour of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, director Amir Bar-Lev amasses such an extensive range of archival footage and new interviews with surviving members of the band that Long Strange Trip gives a full sense of The Grateful Dead’s style, significance and legacy. In a film scene cluttered with music docs, Long Strange Trip feels like a definitive work.

Bar-Lev keeps_ Long Strange Trip_ moving at a healthy pace that lets the running team breeze by until intermission. The doc unpacks the backdrop in which The Grateful Dead emerged and it’s a great lesson in the social history of popular music as the film shows the band finding its voice. Early scenes mix with snippets of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to characterise the Dead as bringing to life the dead parts of the music scene—lived experience, good vibes—with taking themselves seriously in comparison to the squares on the record charts.

An energetic interview with retired music executive Joe Smith complements the Dead’s freewheeling story. He admires how Garcia and company forged a unique style based on performance and the lived experience at a time when labels were scrambling to add rock bands to their collection. One feels a wisp of nostalgia for a bygone era as the surviving band members like Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart describe their early days of devising an album for Warner Bros. that defied all the rules of studio recording. Their feat of waving two fingers in the air and going way over budget proved fruitful and the rest is history.

Long Strange Trip offers a chronological account of the band’s messy and unorthodox style, and it doesn’t hold anything back in its warts-and-all portrait of the band. Stories about the drug culture associated with the Grateful Dead play a major role in the film, both in situating the music within a cultural revolution and for making the doc a rollicking trip, like the anecdote about the Dead lacing the coffee with acid on a Playboy television show. Particularly with Garcia, whom many of his followers treated as a plugged-in prophet, the film doesn’t argue for his saintliness. If anything, it knocks him down, humanises him, and makes his work darker and more resonant.

The film succeeds in going beyond preaching to the choir despite its four-hour running time by focusing on unique elements in the band’s character. A section devoted to their emphasis on the live experience and creating a career through concert tours, rather than cutting records, shows the band’s anti-establishment spirit and passion for the music. Ample concert footage gives a sense of the awesome scope and electricity of their shows. Bar-Levy devotes a fair amount of time to the fans’ interest in recording the Dead’s concerts, which were always different, and amassing collections of cassettes that were hoarded, traded, and appreciated again and again by fans who grew the audience through bootlegging.

The doc cranks up the volume when it details the band’s admirable “wall of sound”—a bona fide behemoth of speakers stacked high. The humorous sequence shows the band’s massive endeavour of packing up and staging each show along the tour, while also emphasising their fine-tuning of the concert experience. Extensive conversations about the pros and cons of the Deadhead phenomenon, on the other hand, offer a handy segue that lets Bar-Lev weigh the successes of The Grateful Dead against its controversies and detractors.

Long Strange Trip eventually begins to feel the weight of its running time through Bar-Lev’s habit of letting five interviewees say the same thing in succession. While that might please die-hard fans of the group since Bar-Lev secures all the big names, the last third of the doc could use a tighter trim. One can’t help but be aware of the scope of this film, though, even when it drags.

The range of archival footage makes Long Strange Trip a unique experience. Bar-Lev features ample snippets of The Grateful Dead on stage and behind the scenes, in interviews and candid conversations. Rare and unseen footage elevates the material and, unlike many music docs that recycle the same familiar images of rock icons, Long Strange Trip offers a sense of discovery. It’s like being on an excavation through a vault that yields precious gems hidden beneath dust and cobwebs. The interviews with Garcia are the prime material and the film ends by giving a bittersweet tribute to the man. The film embraces him as the eccentric showman he was, but Long Strange Trip ends by likening Garcia to an unsung poet beneath his burly, unkempt, party animal demeanour. As odd as the Deadheads seem, they make a bit more sense when one emerges from this immersive trip.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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