Amir Bar Lev‘s Long Strange Trip (Amazon, 241 minutes) is a first-rate chronicle of a great, historic American band. Don’t let the four-hour running time stop you because this time the length fits the scale of the tale. This is one sprawling, Olympian, deeply dug into, nook-and-cranny achievement.
It takes the time to fully explain the appeal of Grateful Dead music and the whole Deadhead ’80s culture thing, which I paid no attention to when it was happening. I loved the frequent use of Frankenstein clips and echoes, and I adored Al Franken‘s comments (“I’m not a Dead authority but a fan”) during the last third.
And I laughed out loud when Robert Hunter recites the “Dark Star” lyrics — “Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes / Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis / Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion / Shall we go, you and I while we can / Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?” — and asks “what is not clear about that”?
The Dead were brilliant at making sloppy haphazard chops sound mesmerizing and anthem-like, but according to their ex-manager Sam Cutler they were mostly terrible in business matters, at least in the early days. But the decision to let fans tape all the shows during the ’80s was genius.
Act One (’65 to ’71 or thereabouts) is a good, comprehensive mid-to-late-’60s history lesson — efficient, amusing, well-honed and sometimes great. But Act Two (or the last two hours) really brings it home. This is where the heart is, what turned the light on — the thing that told me what Amir Bar Lev is really up to.
The last 15 or 20 minutes of Long Strange Trip is about the sad druggy wind-down and death of Jerry Garcia, and that saga seems to end four or five different times. But it finally gets there and poignantly at that.
Long Strange Trip is more about what happened inside — creatively among the band members, managers and hangers-on, and particularly among the Deadhead throngs in the ’80s — than any kind of rote, surface-y rundown of their performing and recording history (this happened, that happened).
One huge problem: “Live Dead“, recorded in ’69, was the Dead’s vinyl breakthrough — a major achievement in delivering that stoned trippy feeling and improv-ish psychedelic canopy sound. Highly praised by Christgau and others. The doc lets us hear portions of the performances that the Dead play on that record, but it doesn’t even mention “Live Dead”.
Nobody really tuned into “Aoxomoxoa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoxomoxoa), which gets mentioned for two or three minutes, or “Anthem of the Sun”. It was “Live Dead” that was the big “aaahhh!” — the Dead album that really reached out. And the movie doesn’t even fucking mention it.
The film discusses “Workingman’s Dead” in a reasonably thorough way, and yet the words “American” and “Beauty” are never heard in sequence….not once! Imagine a doc about the Beatles that omits even the briefest mention of “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.”
And there are relatively few mentions of any personal episodes. Okay, a few but not enough. The deaths of Pig Pen (why did fat Pig Pen get so skinny at the very end…cancer?) and Garcia get the most play. But what about the big pot bust in New Orleans? And why did Bob Weir look like he was 19 years old for at least 40 or 45 years, and why does he look like an ornery old Klondike gold miner now?