Bringing the Grateful Dead to Life: Director Amir Bar-Lev on the Epic Long Strange Trip
Dean Budnick | May 22, 2017
Long Strange Trip is not only the apt title of a new Grateful Dead documentary, but it’s also a fair assessment of the process by which the film was made. Director Amir Bar-Lev, who grew up as a teenage Deadhead in the Bay Area in the 1980s, first put the project in motion back in 2003, shortly after the release of his debut film, Fighter.
“In June of 2003, I got the name of somebody within the organization, Alan Trist, who ran Ice Nine, their publishing company,” Bar-Lev recalls. “I emailed him, and, to my surprise, he emailed me back. Then, much to my greater surprise, when I sent him my first film, Fighter—which is about two old Jews drinking their way through a road trip—he watched it and said he thought the idea of me making a documentary was great and I should move forward. At the time, I was 31 years old, I had only made one film and thought, ‘My God, could it be that easy to reach out and get in contact with the right person and suddenly be making the Grateful Dead documentary?’ The answer is no, it wasn’t that easy. Eleven years transpired, and I got close to making it a couple of times and the scope of the film changed many times. In the interim, I made five films and then, finally, in a way, I was the last man standing. I got the job because I just never gave up.”
During that time, Bar-Lev directed My Kid Could Paint That (2007), The Tillman Story (2010) and Happy Valley (2014), each of which explored issues regarding the ambiguities beneath commonly received narratives. He later applied this perspective to the story of the Grateful Dead. “There’s this myth of Jerry Garcia as this happy hippie icon, Captain Trips, when, in Herb Greene fact, if you were a Deadhead, you understood there were many more shades of darkness and light going on with Jerry and his art,” the director notes.
This also applied to the band’s conceptions of politics and authority. Bar-Lev elucidates this point while discussing the documentary film Berkeley in the Sixties: “I love that movie, and there’s an extra dimension of it to me because I grew up in Berkeley in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and my parents were involved in politics, just as most Berkeley people were. My understanding of Haight-Ashbury was colored by being the child of folks from the East Bay in that time. There was somewhat of a divide between those who felt that the Grateful Dead were perhaps too apolitical, too disengaged from the movement to end the Vietnam War. And then the folks on the other side of the Bay, who felt that if the Berkeley anti-war folks were so opposed to the system, well then, they should just walk away from it.”
Long Strange Trip is divided into six acts, and the film proceeds both thematically and chronologically. Jerry Garcia appears in archival interviews, while Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann all sat with Bar-Lev. The director also spoke with John Perry Barlow, former crew members like Sam Cutler and Steve Parish and even, briefly, the elusive Robert Hunter. The film’s visual, sonic and narrative components prove captivating from the get-go, and the documentary feels much shorter in length than its four-hour runtime.
While some of the scenes will be familiar to the Deadhead faithful, others are altogether exotic. For instance, Bar-Lev draws on rare footage of the group working out the initial harmony vocals to “Candyman.” The hapless efforts of a British documentary crew attempting to film the band during their first visit to Europe in 1970 are equally enchanting. “The Dead did not like people standing at a reserve and observing them clinically,” Bar-Lev reflects. “They wanted people to participate, not observe. And so the documentary crew that’s following them around gets pulled into the story in a fun way, and that’s what makes it great.” He adds, “The fate that befell documentary crews before me, in which they were unable to complete their task because of psychedelics, did not befall me. I was able to complete my task.”
Although Martin Scorsese is an executive producer and his name often appears in conjunction with the documentary, the famed filmmaker’s role was limited. Scorsese was not a day-to-day presence while Long Strange Trip came together; rather, he served as a safety net in case something went awry. This did not come to pass, however, which Bar-Lev attributes to the film’s subjects. “The Grateful Dead set a tone of selflessness way back in ‘65 that makes you want to do your very best—your most selfless. The people on my team, whether they were Deadheads or not, picked up on that and really tried to bring their very best craftsmanship. This was the case whether we’re talking about sound design, archival producing, even legal work. Everyone gave more than they needed to.”
Bar-Lev envisioned the project as a collective venture in the same way that the band’s longtime publicist, Dennis McNally, comments in the film that the essence of the Grateful Dead also encompassed the audience.
“There’s a lot of home movies in this, too,” Bar-Lev notes. “We sent out a call for submissions to Deadheads on the Dead’s social media, and that yielded a bunch of great Super 8 content from the ‘80s, which I love because it really gives color to the experience of being a Deadhead in the ‘80s.”
Long Strange Trip premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and, prior to one of the screenings, an event took place that resonated deeply with the director. “This was a moment that reminded me of what I love about Grateful Dead shows,” he explains. “I wasn’t there, but on the fourth night, a guy drove all the way in from Denver and proposed to his girlfriend at the podium right before it started. That really brought tears to my eyes to hear that because it was beyond my wildest dreams really, that people would consider this a gathering worthy of proposing to your girlfriend.”
Amazon Studios acquired Long Strange Trip and will release the documentary in May.
Can you talk about your initial connection to the Grateful Dead?
I got into the Grateful Dead as a 13 year old. I grew up in the Bay Area. I was first introduced through tapes, and then I started seeing shows in the mid-‘80s. Those of us who got into the Dead in the ‘80s found a sanctuary from some of the more superficial aspects of the culture at the time. It wasn’t just great music, you also had a sense that you were not being performed at. For a while, it ruined other bands for me. Once you’ve been to a Grateful Dead concert, and then somebody’s saying, “Hello, Cleveland!” and doing that kind of schmaltzy rock-and-roll stuff, you see it for what it is—a piece of showbiz.
Since then, the culture has gotten only more superficial. So one of the reasons for making the film was to try and make a record of what rock-and-roll can be and what music can be, for teenagers today and into the future, so that they know what life was like before we were all filming everything with our iPhones—before every rock act had a brand tie-in, and all those other things that have gotten in the way of music appreciation.
Was there any particular film that served as a lodestar for you along the way?
We turned as much to TV shows like The Wire as we did to other music documentaries for inspiration. The Wire has a constellation of different perspectives, and none of them are sacrosanct. If you want to get at the truth, you have to occupy these complementary points of view, which, at many times, are in competition with one another. That seems like a great model for how to make a film about the Grateful Dead, which is really a conversation between a bunch of different people, and not all of them agree at any one moment. I wanted it to feel like moving through seasons of The Wire. When you’re with McNulty, he seems like the protagonist. Then, when you’re with the guys who are in opposition to him, you think McNulty is a lunatic. And, in both cases, you’re right.
The Grateful Dead is a collective. It’s everything from Jerry— who said, “Once I’m done with the music, I don’t care what happens with it,” and was fundamentally committed to the immediate moment— to the tapers, who were committed to posterity. You could see those two things as being at odds with one another, or you could see them as complementing one another. I’m in the latter camp.
To this end, one memorable sequence involves Jerry’s resistance to a band statement encouraging Deadheads to police themselves in the lots.
Jerry’s mistrust of ideology is not because he didn’t want to see the same change in the world that many of us do, and it’s not because he didn’t believe that there was a right and wrong. I certainly didn’t know him, but from listening to all these interviews, I feel like he had a pretty antiauthoritarian view on morality, which was that any morality that was inculcated top-down wasn’t liable to stick. So if, for example, Deadheads wanted people to stop gate-crashing, they should be encouraged to effect that change themselves.
Robert Hunter makes a cameo appearance in the film, which seems like it occurred spontaneously. How did that come about?
I went through years of petitioning him—petitioning people he knows—and was preparing for him to be a cipher in the film. I would ask people on camera whether or not they thought I could get him and why he didn’t want to be on camera, and I almost satisfied myself that his absence could be made to work for the film. But then, while we were interviewing Bob Weir, he offered to call Hunter and bring us over there that very evening. And the result—I’ll leave to the audience to see.
You utilize photography a particular way in the film. What was your approach?
I wanted the animation to be psychedelic but in an analog way—stories within stories. I wanted to acknowledge the people who had taken the photos, so that contact sheets, grease pencils and the process of documenting the Dead’s journey was part of what we were playing with and showing the audience.
Beyond footage of the band, Frankenstein serves an important thematic role.
Jerry says that watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a 6 year old was one of the seminal moments in his life. He says that it was a year after his dad died, and “it was the fact of the dead thing brought back to life. It terrified me.” Later, he says that another huge epiphany happened when he went to see the Watts Towers after the Watts Acid Tests. He says, “I don’t want to make something that’s here when I’m gone. I think I’d rather have fun.” On some level, in both cases, Jerry is asking, I think, “How does something become immortal? Is it by electrocuting a corpse? Building a monument?” One of the questions of the film is about how to make something that’s built to last—and whether it’s a good idea to make something that’s built to last.