Dead Alive: The Grateful Dead’s Long Strange Trip

Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, isn’t just for Deadheads.

Jerry Garcia lying on the floor, circa 1970. (Photo by Herb Greene)

Directed by Amir Bar-Lev and executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, Long Strange Trip is so much more than a “behind the music” backstory about the Grateful Dead.

A documentary made of archival and never-before-seen footage, concert clips, and interviews with band members, it runs for four hours. That’s fitting, since it’s pretty much the average length of a Grateful Dead show, give or take a few hours. (The band never played predetermined songs or sets.)

While the film contains a lighter, historical account of how the band came about, it doesn’t sugarcoat the darker events that led to Jerry Garcia’s death. No doubt, it’s a lot to process, but if it were one minute shorter, it wouldn’t have been enough. And Deadhead though I am, even I learned some things.

Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story and My Kid Could Paint That) attended the April premiere at the Castro Theatre in the presence of family and friends, including Trixie Garcia (Jerry’s daughter), lyricist John Barlow, activist Wavy Gravy and his wife Jahanara Romney, and plenty of fans donning flowy dresses, old jeans, and tie-dye. The collective love in the audience was palpable, and according to those who were close to Garcia, it was “healing.” During a Q&A after the films screening, Trixie Garcia said, “It was time for the whole community to heal and to process what happened. [The film] is going to turn on a lot of new people, but heal a lot of wounds, as well.”

The first few acts of the six-part documentary delve into the band’s 1965 formation in Palo Alto, when they played at acid tests around the Haight as the Beat Generation’s heyday gave way to the hippie movement. Garcia was inspired by the Beats, and in one clip, he compares the Dead’s followers to the wanderers in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, implying that the band’s audience, too, was driven by the desire to adventure around the United States. It also shows footage of the band hanging out with Merry Pranksters Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady.

The later part of the film explores darker moments, such as the band’s reluctant rise to stardom and Garcia’s subsequent struggle with heroin. It heightened in the late ’80s, around the same time that huge groups of ticketless partygoers were arriving at shows, changing a once-peaceful situation into a chaotic one.

I met up with Bar-Lev, a Berkeley native, at the Ritz-Carlton a few weeks after the Castro screening. He said he made the film to explore how the band handled fame, since the Grateful Dead was known for a disinclination toward publicity or creating hit songs yet they still ended up as the highest-grossing concert act in the United States.

Asked if he thinks non-Deadheads would appreciate the film as much as Deadheads might, Bar-Lev said, “Just this morning, I was thinking that. Basically, it’s two films happening simultaneously, but they occupy the same space. One of those films is for Deadheads and the other is for people who scratch their heads and don’t understand what Deadheads are all about. It’s really made for the two audiences.”

Having a combination of Deadheads and non-Deadheads work on Long Strange Trip was key, because Deadheads can suffer from groupthink, just as any other subculture can.

“I put people on the film who are fantastic filmmakers,” he said. “Each of them brought something different, and what they were bringing felt very at home with our approach. All those guys weren’t going to let stuff be in the film that just made sense to Deadheads.”

In Act V, Bar-Lev interviews well-known fans like Sen. Al Franken, San Francisco writer Steve Silberman, and New Yorker journalist Nick Paumgarten. He did so because there was always a tension between Deadheads who would have almost indescribable experiences at the shows and people who were curious about what it was all about. Bar-Lev picked the most articulate Deadheads he knew, hoping they could put the whole thing to rest.

Long Strange Trip’s final act is the heaviest, showing how the scene became unmanageable after the release of 1987’s “Touch of Grey,” the band’s only single to chart in the top 10. Bar-Lev said that while that song may have seemed to destroy the Grateful Dead scene, it’s also the reason the film was made.

“It’s what gave the Grateful Dead its cultural legs,” he said. “It’s going to be in the bloodstream of the culture in a way that can’t be put back, and I think that’s a good thing. On some level, I feel that Jerry understood that and wasn’t going to be putting his foot down about people gate-crashing and newbies too much, because he understood that the Grateful Dead being devoured by their own popularity was maybe exactly what needed to happen.”

“I think that’s Jerry in a nutshell,” he added. “Instead of putting value judgments on things, he was just like, ‘Let it happen.’ Maybe he thought it was just the natural course of things.”

While you can’t dodge the deep sorrow surrounding Garcia’s death in 1995, the overall takeaway from the film is that the Grateful Dead wasn’t just a band, but a phenomenon. Since no show or song was played exactly as its previous one, the band had become a living organism — a collective improvisation — that was completely dependent on audience participation. All the Grateful Dead ever wanted from the beginning was to live life and have a damn good time doing it, and for a long time, they achieved that.

Long Strange Trip, Thursday, May 25, 7 p.m., at the Clay Theatre, and Monday, May 29, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, longstrangetripdoc.com/screenings.

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