Film Review: Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful DeadA fairly comprehensive and thorough portrait of a band whose legacy has far surpassed its drug-tinged hippie roots.
If you’re of a certain age, you probably already have some pre-existing opinion when you hear the words “The Grateful Dead,” whether you’re a “Deadhead”—as the band’s fans lovingly call themselves—a casual listener or someone who believes them to be the height of a hippie movement that just wouldn’t seem to go away. And yet, the undeniable influence the group has had on the modern-day jam movement—represented by bands like Phish—has kept its music and legacy alive for nearly five decades.
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story), Long Strange Trip is an extended retrospective of the band’s history. It begins by covering the evolution of the group from a banjo-centric bluegrass band into Jerry Garcia’s early British Invasion-influenced band The Warlocks. The addition of composer Phil Lesh on bass enabled their transition into the more traditional incarnation of the Grateful Dead.
Narrated through archival interviews with the band’s late front man Garcia, as well as the living members of the band and crew, the film lovingly solidifies the group’s image as a band of brothers who work together and listen to one another in order to make better music.
At just over four hours, Long Strange Trip surpasses Peter Bogdanovich’s Tom Petty doc Runnin’ Down a Dream by three minutes; that alone may allow it the claim as being comprehensive. The length may be necessary, as it not only spends time on each member of the band but also on each of the band’s longtime crew to show what each brings to the Dead experience.
As might be expected, drugs are an underlying theme throughout the film, from the band’s introduction to LSD as they played as the Merry Pranksters for Ken Kesey’s acid tests. Eventually, cocaine and heroin and alcohol come into the picture, which leads to many of the problems that plagued Garcia and the group into the late ’70s and ’80s.
Garcia never seemed too keen about his art having any sort of enduring legacy after his death in 1995. To him, it was more about having fun while you’re still alive, somewhat ironic once you see the band’s enormous musical archives of recorded material and documented live shows.
Through the numerous stories told, Bar-Lev juxtaposes the band’s music and concert films taken from those archives to create something that somehow manages to keep you invested for much of its four hours. One of the more interesting revelations is Garcia’s interest in the Frankenstein monster and horror movies in general, which Bar-Lev ably threads throughout the film.
If you’re not a “Deadhead,” you may not have the patience for such a long trip down the Grateful Dead rabbit hole. The movie does feel somewhat long-winded at times, and by the two-hour mark it starts to get a little tedious, as it turns its attention to the Dead’s obsessive fans. Thankfully, it picks up more steam going into the band’s last act with the renewed success the Dead had after their 1987 hit single “Touch of Grey.” There’s also a surprising return by Jerry’s early girlfriend Barbara “Brigid” Meier, who gave him his first guitar, as the two reunite 30 years later, only for Jerry to begin abusing drugs again.
A movie like this is constantly in danger of lavishing far too much praise on Garcia and every aspect of his band, essentially deifying them both. Even with everything Bar-Lev accomplishes in chronicling the band, the film may have a tough time convincing more cynical non-fans that the Grateful Dead were as good as everyone in the movie claims.
Long Strange Trip will likely be worth the wait for those who have wanted to learn more about the band’s definitive history; they’ll also be the ones that enjoy Bar-Lev’s lengthy film the most.
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