Long Strange Trip
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev
The tale of the Grateful Dead is inspiring, complicated, and downright messy. A tribe of contrarians, they made art out of open-ended chaos and inadvertently achieved success on their own terms. Never-before-seen footage and interviews offer this unprecedented and unvarnished look at the life of the Dead.
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★★★½ review by matt lynch on Letterboxd
As someone who knew virtually nothing about the band aside from the whole Deadhead thing (seriously there were multiple times during this that I went "Oh, that's a Grateful Dead song?" Yeah, that clueless), I found this pretty endlessly engrossing. But even at four hours (which burned off really easily in one sitting) it's clear that a lot's been elided, choosing instead to focus on specific emotional threads rather than telling a more straightforward historical narrative. Obviously that's by design, but as a total rookie here I would have preferred something a bit more traditional even though that wouldn't have made much sense given the subject. Anyway this is about as good as these things get, and I can only imagine what it'd be like for someone with an actual investment in the band.
★★★½ review by Jake Cole on Letterboxd
A fittingly sprawling account of what publicist/biographer Dennis McNally adroitly dubbed the "most" American band, one that slightly tweaks the usual rise and fall narrative to suggest that the fall didn't so much come from too many drugs but simply the wrong kind. It's hard not to get swept up in the utopian vision of the group, which remained so in-the-moment its entire career that the documentary's core structure follows less any concrete development than the constant variability of the set. At times this can be frustrating; the doc is both linear and occasionally formless, and significant milestones are completely ignored in favor of a loose drift that sometimes seems to leap five years in a single cut. It makes sense that the studio albums are almost entirely ignored, given that they served mostly as sketches for their true manifestations on the stage, and it's nice to see a music doc change up the usual movement. (Having said that, I wish we'd heard more about how the live/studio mash-up Anthems of the Sun showed them striving to capture the former in the latter setting, or how their intricate, cross-genre mastery produced a truly remarkable, forward-thinking LP like Blues for Allah.)
As enervating as some of the diffuseness could be, the doc admirably reflected its subject in this respect, and the depths to which it sinks to explore the Dead's massive speaker setup, the cross-pollination of genres that gave the band its expansive palette, and the culture of the fandom give a well-covered portrait of the band. I'm struck by the heartbreaking symmetry of it all. Consider the tail end of the first part, which relates a young Jerry Garcia visiting the colossal, arduously assembled Watts Towers and recoiling at the cold permanence of it. Rejecting the notion of the artist who erects monuments to be admired after death, he resolves simply to have fun. Contrast that with the haggard, aged man in the final chapter, a man strung out on heroin from the pressures of being everyone else's conduit for fun, forced to tour because so many depended on him for livelihoods and for life.
★★★★½ review by Jordan Horowitz on Letterboxd
Loved this. Transcendent. A great music film and also one of the best films I’ve seen about what it means to be a free, progressive artist.
★★★★ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
America's pretty crazy. Some good music though.
Once in awhile you get shown the light
in the strangest of places if you look at it right
★★★½ review by Scrambled Face on Letterboxd
If you're anything like me, you were mighty disappointed when you first heard The Grateful Dead and had trouble connecting the band's mindbending skull/skeleton imagery with its gently loping Americana tunes. I didn't get it, so I went the ignorant route people take with most music they don't instantly get (jazz, death metal, other jam bands): I rejected it. Yet, despite pop culture's granolahead stereotypes, most self-identifying Deadheads I've ever met have been cool people, and since meeting my goth/hippie wife just over a decade ago, the Dead's enduring charm has become more and more evident. At this point in life, musical subcultures I'm not immersed in are more fascinating than intimidating. So, I was happy to sit through Amir Bar-Lev's four-hour documentary on the band and their cultural legacy, if only to help fashion the fragments of lore I've gleaned into some sort of sensible story.
Yes, Long Strange Trip is four hours long, with the intermission during our theatrical screening mirroring the band's customary set breaks. Even with the extended runtime, there are plenty of questions unanswered. It skips over small but seemingly important trivia, like why part of Jerry Garcia's finger suddenly disappears during the archival footage, or what happened with the revolving keyboardist slot after Brent Mydland's death. More curiously, we only get glimpses of the individual personalities of key members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, even though they're all alive and on good terms professionally (I saw them play together just last year). The effect of this is to underline what a charismatic, driven frontman and founder Garcia was, and in essence, the documentary emerges as more his story than the band's as a whole, particularly in its heartfelt but dragged-out final stretches. Perhaps that's fitting, as his was and is the face most easily identified with The Grateful Dead, but it does contribute to the sense that some crucial notes went missing amid all the contributors' tasty riffing.
That said, this epic retrospective does an excellent job when communicating the appeal of this specific subculture. Bar-Lev presents an admirably clear chronology of how a ragtag bunch of dudes who loved to play their instruments grew from a traveling acid party's sideshow to a cult major label rock band known for amorphous improvisational performances to a self-contained itinerant microeconomy that ultimately consumed its figurehead. The Dead's seemingly innocuous repertoire of country boogie blues, delicate folk harmonies and feel-good oldies covers is nearly impossible to perceive as transgressive in this day and age, but it's easier to see when Long Strange Trip draws lines between the band's technical innovations and its roots in the ideals of the American '60s counterculture. You may wonder how an avowed peacenik like Garcia could defend the Hell's Angels who killed that kid at Altamont, but the actual hippies of yesteryear were generally less privileged than those of today, so the concept of personal freedom held greater weight to them than political correctness ever could.
Nuggets of perspective like that make this doc worth the considerable time commitment if the era is of any interest to you. It goes without saying that Deadheads of any degree should check it out, as well as anyone who appreciates a good rock doc that isn't afraid to delve into its subject's paradoxes rather than simply pile on the praise. For everyone else... let me tell you, I'm well past the age where Grateful Dead superfandom might have dramatically impacted my aesthetics and philosophy and life choices. However, experience has also given me the perspective to appreciate how innovative this collection of dedicated misfits was, and I can admit to enjoying a tune or ten. Maybe you only think you don't like The Grateful Dead.
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