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Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story Of The Grateful Dead

by Richard B. Simon on August 01, 2017
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

On first glance, the four-hour run time of Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead history is daunting. But there wouldn’t have been any other approach to the complex entity that is the Grateful Dead.

Bar-Lev builds the narrative around guitarist Jerry Garcia, casting him as a child who, stricken by the death of his father, finds resonance (“Bongggg!”) in the movie Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; the film’s weird scariness imbues in Garcia a fascination with the strange and a comfort with death. It becomes the film’s controlling metaphor—a monster built from parts that comes to electrical life and essentially destroys its creator.

Long Strange Trip is a pastiche of footage from across the band’s career; current interviews with band members, associates, family members and writers; and outtakes from the various Dead films, as well as from some never-seen reels, which is some of the gold for folks who have, indeed, heard this story before. Its metastructure segues from one subtopic to the next like the ebb and flow of a Grateful Dead concert, right down to the occasional atmospheric dives into the unsettling psychedelia and foreboding darkness that emphasize dips in the narrative.

Bar-Lev casts one-time band manager Sam Cutler as an archetype, a grisled rock-and-roll sage from The Rolling Stones camp who provides an angel’s perspective. Writer Steve Silberman compares the physical structure of a Dead show to a Tibetan Buddhist mandala. New Yorker staffer Nick Paumgarten explains that beneath the jolly icon, Garcia was a bringer of dark news.

And Bar-Lev seems to get the band members to confront some of what, 22 years ago, they may not have been ready to. It wasn’t the drugs that killed Garcia; it was the unceasing pressure to be the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead always embraced the sublime order in chaos—of darkness and light, of living and death, of both sides of the lightning bolt, the red and the blue. It was an organism. Like any complex dynamic system, it channeled too much energy and it burnt itself out.

The trick is that this isn’t really an untold story. It just hadn’t yet been told for this time. Bar-Lev gives us its essence—a retelling of the myth, chapter by chapter, verse by verse—clothed for a time in which the Grateful Dead’s analog spiritual force seems distant and alien, a signal from far-away dimension.
Authors: Richard B. Simon