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Grateful Dead doc director says 'Long Strange Trip' isn't just for Deadheads




Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir backstage in 1977. Photographer: Peter Simon
Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir backstage in 1977. Photographer: Peter Simon
Photographer: Peter Simon Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

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The new documentary, “Long Strange Trip," is an epic, four-hour-long film about The Grateful Dead and its reluctant leader — guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia. Filmmaker Amir Bar Lev says that people who are unfamiliar with the band's music will find something about the community and the ethics of the band valuable: "I think about Jerry's idea of leadership a lot in this moment we're in, where we have a narcissist for a president in a narcissistic culture."

The film taps into a wealth of archival footage to tell the story of how The Grateful Dead found its sound and community, and rebuffed the traditional music industry in the process. 

The film largely focuses on Garcia, who put together the group in the 1960s and was a reluctant leader and father figure. Garcia died in 1995, but there is a lot of archival footage of him in the film, in addition to interviews with his survivors and the living members of The Dead.

Bar-Lev ("The Tillman Story," "Happy Valley") originally pitched himself to make this film more than 11 years ago. He told The Frame's John Horn that the documentary took a long time to come to fruition, in part because of the non-traditional way that the band runs its business and makes decisions.

The Grateful Dead backstage in 1977. Left to Right: Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Keith Godchaux, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Donna Jean Godchaux. Photographer: Peter Simon
The Grateful Dead backstage in 1977. Left to Right: Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Keith Godchaux, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Donna Jean Godchaux. Photographer: Peter Simon
Photographer: Peter Simon Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video."

Interview highlights:

On the challenge of documenting a band that defies categorization:

They don't want to be defined and categorized and put in a little box because The Grateful Dead is this protean, malleable thing. It's not meant to be any one thing. And so if you come in with a documentary pitch and say, This is what you guys are, then it doesn't go far. And then if you don't do that, it takes 11 years and you get to do it. 

On how the narrative structure of "Long Strange Trip" is like "The Wire":

I'm interested in complementary points-of-view. When you're watching 'The Wire,' you know when you're with McNulty, you're like, This is it. This is the protagonist. This is the guy I'm with. But then when you're with his antagonists you realize his shortcomings and then your perspective clocks around. And that's the only way to understand The Grateful Dead family. 

The Grateful Dead performing in Egypt 1978. Left to Right: Donna Jean Godchaux, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann. Photographer: Adrian Boot
The Grateful Dead performing in Egypt 1978. Left to Right: Donna Jean Godchaux, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann. Photographer: Adrian Boot
Photographer: Adrian Boot Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.

On how Jerry Garcia invited people into his life who "had perspectives that weren't his":

When Jerry put the band together, he picked them because they were an eclectic group of people that didn't make sense. Phil Lesh should never have played the bass. They all came from different [music] backgrounds. And Jerry had started as a virtuoso who used to listen to old bluegrass records in half-time and slavishly imitate the guitar or banjo solos. And then a bunch of things happened to him, including Ken Kesey's acid tests, and he realized he didn't want to slavishly imitate things or try to fit into some pre-determined musical idiom. And so he wanted to invite people to go through life with him who had perspectives that weren't his. That's how he put together the band, musically, but that's also how he put together the organization. A lot of Deadheads  presented themselves and said, Hey, you know, I'd like to help you do this thing that you're doing, and they were brought in.

Deadheads in the Taper’s Section at an outdoor venue late-1980s. Photographer: Michael Conway
Deadheads in the Taper’s Section at an outdoor venue late-1980s. Photographer: Michael Conway
Photographer: Michael Conway Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.

On how "Long Strange Trip" isn't just for Deadheads:

The film is not for Deadheads. I surrounded myself with non-Deadheads to make it so that nothing is in the film just because, Oh yeah! That was the "Morning Dew" from Europe '72! It's gotta be a story that makes sense to anybody. Some of the first people that have seen this film are my mother-in-law and father-in-law. I invited them into the edit and they're as square as can be. They're from the Midwest. I was testing out the sound mix on them and they had the reaction that I'm looking for, which is: This is a great story. It's about bigger things than the band. If you think that you don't like The Grateful Dead's music, I welcome you to come see the movie. I bet you I'll change your mind. But even so, it's a story about some big ideas.

Jerry Garcia backstage before a Grateful Dead concert in Golden Gate Park 09/28/1975. Photographer: Roberto Rabanne
Jerry Garcia backstage before a Grateful Dead concert in Golden Gate Park 09/28/1975. Photographer: Roberto Rabanne
Photographer: Roberto Rabanne Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

On how Jerry Garcia's idea of leadership provides a counterpoint to Trump:

[Garcia] is a guy who people started to worship, who had some interesting ideas about leadership. I think about Jerry's idea of leadership a lot in this moment, where we have a narcissist for a president in a narcissistic culture. And this was a very selfless band – they gave their music away ... this guy was so charismatic and he really mistrusted his own charisma. He eschewed leadership to a degree that was problematic for the people around him. So, for instance, they had a lot of Hell's Angels hanging around and people inside their organization said, Come on, Jerry. Step up. You're the leader here, you're kind of the father figure. Those guys are not part of what The Grateful Dead is, right? And he wouldn't take a stand on that because he felt that The Grateful Dead is whatever it is at that moment and that the collective had to figure it out amongst themselves. Which, to me, is a very American perspective. It's a very pluralistic perspective. And that's why I think they're the great American rock 'n' roll band. 

They gave away their music for free, they invited lots of people to participate in it, and they were never in it for the kind of sheen of recognition. So I think there's a story here that I think is relevant for today. 

To hear the full interview with Amir Bar-Lev, click the blue player above.

"Long Strange Trip" will be released in theaters on May 26th before streaming on Amazon beginning June 2.



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