‘Long Strange Trip’ Is a Great Grateful Dead Documentary

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

Well, of course a Grateful Dead documentary is going to be four hours long: The running time for Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead, premiering Friday on Amazon Prime, is just one apt metaphor among many here for the Dead’s lengthy, digressive, yet purposeful existence since the band formed in the 1960s. Director Amir Bar-Lev strikes just the right tone of informed fannishness while maintaining rigorous control over the rhythm of his film — it’s the movie equivalent of a good Dead concert, without the dead spots.

Organized into six “acts,” Long Strange Trip isn’t locked into a strict chronological procession through the band’s history. Yes, it begins with the group’s formation, first as the Warlocks and then as the Grateful Dead, and it wraps up with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. But much of the time, the film moves in a number of directions simultaneously, picking up and filling out various aspects of the band’s history. Members of the band — most prominently Bob Weir and Phil Lesh — talk about the development of the Dead’s methods of improvisation. The band’s roadies and technicians describe the evolution of the Dead’s elaborate concert sound system and meticulous recording of every concert — tapes that have proved a mother lode of music for fans. Bar-Lev is lucky that the Dead has such a colorful and articulate veteran roadie in Steve Parish, whose comments add a great deal of hard-headed authenticity to his witnessing of many key Dead band moments, from its initial experiments with LSD to Garcia’s descent into drug addiction.

Much of Act Five is a lengthy, engrossing exploration of the concept of “the Dead-head,” as well as the band’s canny-by-accident business practices, which inadvertently anticipated the future of the music business. (The Dead was one of the first superstar-status groups to make its money primarily from touring, with record sales used essentially as promotional items for the shows.) There are insightful comments from New Yorker staff writer and Deadhead Nick Paumgarten, as well as amusing fan notes from Deadhead Sen. Al Franken. Bar-Lev seems to have spoken to everyone he wanted to get to, including the band’s reclusive lyricist Robert Hunter, with whom he had a few words.

Moving in a psychedelic swirl, the film’s focus comes to rest most often on Garcia, in whom the essential spirit of the Grateful Dead resided. Bar-Lev has done striking job of cleaning up recordings of various Garcia interviews over the decades so that they end up providing a vivid voiceover narrative sprinkled throughout the film.

I say all of this as one who has never considered himself much of a Dead fan: I’ve always admired the band more than enjoyed it. This time around, watching every minute of this long film without ever being bored, I really enjoyed the Dead, a lot.

Long Strange Trip is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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