AMIR BAR-LEV’S GRATEFUL DEAD DOCUMENTARY IS A FOUR-HOUR TOUR DE FORCE
Written by E. Ryan Ellis
Somewhere around the third minute of the Grateful Dead’s massive classic “Wharf Rat,” I’m lifted out of my shoes, out of my own existence and into the warm arms of a waggling organ’s vibrato. It’s transcendent, it’s my own wonderful moment and the version of the song I love the best from a show at the Fillmore East, April 26, 1971. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Director Amir Bar-Lev has bottled this wistful feeling into a four-hour documentary on the Grateful Dead. Long Strange Trip is a masterpiece of musical documentation and promises to tell the whole story about the beloved, iconic act. Bar-Lev previously directed documentaries about the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Pat Tillman’s death titled, respectively, Happy Valley and The Tillman Story. The Grateful Dead film will be released in select theaters on May 26 and, after its release, will be available on Amazon Prime on June 2. We spoke with Bar-Lev about his own experiences with the band and the access his team was given in making the documentary.
MM What is your own experience with the Grateful Dead?
AB You mean, today? My basic jogging regimen—couple of good barnstorming ’73 numbers to get the blood flowing ... oh, you mean when did I see them? The 1980s. In all seriousness, because of the abundance of recorded concerts available on the Internet, it’s an ongoing relationship. And I try to avoid the rank-ism of talking about how many shows I went to and who in the band I ever met personally, and all that other bunk that some folks like to engage in to one-up each other. Who cares?
MM Tell me the genesis of wanting to make a documentary on the Grateful Dead and how it came to fruition?
"I think I’m not the only filmmaker who gets attracted to subject matters about which the myth seems to have drifted from the reality."
AB I think I’m not the only filmmaker who gets attracted to subject matters about which the myth seems to have drifted from the reality. Whether I’m making a film about Pat Tillman or Joe Paterno or the Grateful Dead, the notion of helping to correct the record for posterity excites me. Over the years, I’ve watched as the Dead have become a kind of cartoon in the public imagination. In reality, there were big, smart and subversive ideas at work—in their relationship with fans, the industry and America. My hunch is that history will see the Dead as having represented social change, a threat to the status quo, pioneering aesthetics—all these things we now associate with things like punk and early hip-hop.
MM There seems to be an interest in the Grateful Dead from a younger audience in the last 10 years or so. In an age in which pop songs are three minutes of instant gratification, why do you think this band continues to resonate?
AB It’s gratifying to experience genuine music making, not showbiz fakery. That’s true no matter what age you are. Smoke bombs and stagecraft and auto-tuning are like junk food. Even kids eventually realize it doesn’t make a square meal. The Dead have a vital message right now in this age of self-regard, in which pathological narcissism rises to the very top. And ... it’s great music!
MM Over the course of making the film, how did your personal opinion change about the band and its members? Do you feel like you demystified the band for yourself in any way?
AB There were so many surprises in making this, surprises that deepened and changed my understanding and appreciation for these guys. Just one example: Jerry [Garcia] tells a great story about realizing that if he succeeded as an artist, his payoff would be something permanent left over after he was gone. Then, out of left field, he says: “I don’t want that.” On a fundamental level, the Dead were about life. Building a legacy, or a body of work, or a tribe—these weren’t even secondary concerns, and they were discarded if they got in the way of a genuine encounter in the now.
MM In reference to GD archives and such, what kind of access were you given in the process of making this film?
AB We were given what no one had ever gotten before: total access. And in looking through the archives, we discovered that documentaries were attempted in the past. Oftentimes, the film crews were dosed with acid, so that they couldn’t complete their tasks. The band preferred participants over spectators.
MM How hard was it to get the film down to four hours?
AB To my great joy, no one is saying the film is too long—most critics are saying that four hours flies by. Instead of spending time trying to trim the film’s duration, we spent our edit time trying to trim any fat so it would zing along. Truthfully, most of the criticism about its length comes from Deadheads who are angry we left out one thing or another. But our goal was making a good movie; it was never meant to be an exhaustive Wikipedia entry.
MM You’ve covered some pretty heavy topics in your previous films—not to say that the Grateful Dead story is all sunshine and smiles—but did you feel like this was a change in filmmaking tone for you, or do you not differentiate it in that way?
AB I’m so glad you ask that! Because what you say is crucial to understand—they weren’t all sunshine and smiles. That’s the cartoon image we’ve become comfortable with. The songs drew from the black muddy river of American folk tradition—murder ballads and such. And remarkably, somehow, they always seemed to place the listener in the driver’s seat. Without ever being pedantic or moralistic, in some very nuanced way, their songs were about the choices we all have. They fostered empathy, and they spoke to the dark side within us that yearns to be better.
"On a fundamental level, the Dead were about life."
MM The bootlegs, live recordings—the enormity of the catalog is one of the great joys of being a fan of the Grateful Dead. Everyone has his or her favorites. Personally, my favorite song and version is “Wharf Rat” (Live at the Fillmore East, April 26, 1971). Do you have a favorite song and version of that song?
AB “Wharf Rat” is a classic example of what I was just speaking about: the songs about broken people who turn out on some level to be ... us. I listened to your favorite “Wharf Rat.” It’s good. But ... it kind of peters out at the end, and I’m not sure I could have a favorite “Wharf Rat” without Brent Mydland on the Hammond B3. Have you heard the one from ... wait ... I think no one is still reading this. We cleared the room, Ryan. Put it back on, I’ll give it another listen. MM