The “Long Strange Trip” documentary could’ve emerged long ago, shortly after the Grateful Dead first toured Europe in 1972, but the Dead had no intention of becoming icons, or solidifying the dynamic, spontaneous and ever-evolving Dead experience. After all, when Warner Bros. signed the band, it took the company 18 months to get the musicians to agree to a press photograph. So when a film crew showed up to document the 1972 tour, the Dead gave them LSD in the spirit of participation over observation. Tripping, the crew ultimately abandoned their cameras, and Jerry Garcia ended up graciously talking them down. Later, he said, “Music should be holy — it shouldn’t be business.”
And so it wasn’t until 2017 that “Long Strange Trip” debuted, through an entirely new crew.
“The Grateful Dead’s story was ‘untold’ in part because one of the last documentary film teams that tried to tell it got dosed with LSD. There’s lots of unseen archival footage, but my favorite is that documentary that never was,” director Amir Bar-Lev said. “The Dead didn’t like people to put them under the microscope. There’s a great scene where Garcia realizes the high cameraman is struggling to do his job and tells him, ‘You can always just put down your equipment … and split.’ Classic Jerry: Always taking the psychedelic perspective.”
Bar-Lev, who knew more about the Dead “than is healthy,” he said, began the project in June 2003 by emailing Alan Trist, who ran the Dead’s publishing company. Trist sent him the aforementioned, unreleased “dosed” documentary and told him he should carry it forward. While Trist was easy, it took another 11 years to get everyone else’s blessing in the band.
“It wasn’t easy convincing the band to do this,” Bar-Lev said. “They have a healthy mistrust of anything publicity-related. And perhaps most importantly they were concerned that a film might provide a definitive meaning to their story instead of keeping it open to different interpretations and perspectives.”
Although the nearly four-hour film, featuring never-before-seen footage and unvarnished interviews, could be called definitive, printing that just might cause Garcia to roll over in his grave, so let’s just use the term groundbreaking.
With backing from Martin Scorsese, the film blends a massive amount of archival material, including the entire vault the Dead opened up to the crew and multiple years’ worth of footage the filmmakers scoured the world for, along with more recent interviews to create a cohesive , yet still very Dead-esque, experiential narrative. Multiple editors spent three years editing the film and five months mixing the soundtrack, building a score from the Dead’s original studio multitrack masters. They used the surround channels and remixed the masters. With the live music, they often blended the vault’s clean soundboard recording with an audience version of the same show, to provide a sense of being enveloped by the music and the crowd.
“I knew that this film would spend a lot of time in the past via archival material, but I wanted it to have the feel of taking place in the present moment,” Bar-Lev said. “More specifically, I wanted the film to collapse time. So, for example, whenever possible we discover the archival material in a story beat in the present: people playing a tape recording, or finding a reel of film.”
In one scene, the audience hears the band in 1970, in addition to the camera crew talking about filming the band that same year and tour manager Sam Cutler narrating the scene from Brooklyn and Bob Weir watching from some imagined screening room, complete with the whir of the projectors.
“The idea was to capture what I think the band is singing about in ‘Ripple,’ the notion that there’s a wave moving through time with a message for you,” Bar-Lev said.
Seventeen interviewees weave in and out of the film “as eye-witnesses rather than commentators,” Bar-Lev said.
“Another key idea was that no one voice is sacrosanct. The closer the audience can take in seemingly disparate perspectives, the closer they can get at the truth of the matter,” he said, mirroring the Dead’s philosophy of no one, ultimate authority. As the documentary points out, some days, if the truck’s carburetor blew, it became boss.
As one clip points out: “The narrative of the Grateful Dead is we’re the same as you, you’re the same as us; there is no real distinction. There’s a powerful camaraderie and fellowship,” albeit one filled with “experimenting with psychedelics as much as we were playing music,” which bass player Phil Lesh credits (the acid test experience) for forming the band as a “group mind.”
Overall, as the film notes: “It’s a philosophy of leaving yourself open to the possibility and leaving yourself open to magic.”
And the Dead certainly attracted a wild and magical mandala, filled with spinners reveling in religious experiences, “because they thought Garcia was a prophet”; audiences positioning themselves in the Phil zone and the Jerry side; people who were deaf watching signers and holding balloons to take in the vibrations of the music; Wharf Rats meeting during set breaks, committed to a sober path; tapers sharing the shows; and sometimes menace presences, including the Hells Angels.
“It was total chaos,” percussionist Mickey Hart says in the documentary. “Jerry Garcia did not bargain to be the major of a traveling counterculture town.”
He didn’t quite embrace the role. “When asked to guide the ship, Jerry chose instead to let the scene morph into whatever it did based on the aggregate of how each individual chose to act,” Bar-Lev said.
“It’s not up to us to define the Grateful Dead,” Garcia says in the film. “It’s a living, breathing thing, and that’s one of the parts of its magic. Not defining it is that it becomes everything.”
“Long Strange Trip” provides an immersive experience into the Dead’s fiercely independent vision, constant evolution and uncompromising commitment and intimacy with their audience. It’s the first full-length documentary of its kind, weaving candid interviews with the musicians, roadies, family members and dedicated Deadheads to portray a freewheeling psychedelic subculture, insight into Garcia’s psyche, dynamic shows and unguarded, offstage moments.
“I feel the Dead’s story is more vital now than ever. What the Dead and the Deadheads did, we could do today,” Bar-Lev said. “To paraphrase Jerry Garcia, when he talks about slipping acid into coffee at the Playboy Channel show, it would ‘turn an artificial party into an authentic one.’”
Filmmakers intended the documentary to be much shorter than its nearly four hours, “but it resisted our efforts,” Bar-Lev said, which seems entirely fitting. It ends in 1995, with Garcia expressing his hope that “something carries on after he and the band are dead and gone,” Bar-Lev said. “It’s a beautiful sentiment, because he’s very clear to say he doesn’t mean the Grateful Dead, or jam band music or even music at all. We figured if we ended the film precisely at that point, we’re letting the band say to the viewer: The next move is yours.”