What, did you expect a short documentary about the Grateful Dead?
Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary “Long Strange Trip” clocks in at just over four hours, which seems right for a band known for three-hour-plus concerts, rich with extended jams that stretched songs into double or triple their original running times. “Long Strange Trip” has a one-night-only screening at Marcus Point Cinemas at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Bar-Lev’s exhaustive, impressionistic and heartfelt film is a lot like a Grateful Dead jam. It’s frequently digressive, wandering off the main thread of the band’s history to chase one interesting but non-essential nugget. But just when you think it’s gone too far down one tangent, the film snaps back on track with a poignant, riveting moment.
The film opens on what seems like one of those tangents — frontman Jerry Garcia’s obsession with the Frankenstein myth, and with the movie “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” in particular. At first it appears like a fun, weird detail that embodied Garcia’s image as a playful Buddha-like figure.
But as the film returns again and again to Frankenstein, a darker meaning emerges. The Grateful Dead was very much Garcia’s Frankenstein monster, something he brought life to and let walk the earth. But as the monster grew more and more powerful, Garcia became as much its servant as its master. And, in the end, his creation destroyed him.
The Grateful Dead is heralded as the best American band by its legions of Deadheads. Bar-Lev, an obvious Dead fan, makes the case that the Dead were the most American band, as they functioned as a democracy. Garcia was the reluctant leader of the group of talented but disparate musicians who somehow formed a more perfect union in the Dead’s sound.
And while they grew out of the 1960s counterculture of Haight-Ashbury, LSD and the search for transcendence within their music, they also prided themselves on being a blue collar, working band first and foremost. As one band member puts it, “We’re in the transportation business,” summing up both the band’s desire to transport their audiences to mind-expanding places, and to make a living doing so.
“Long Strange Trip” spends a lot of time with the surviving members of the Dead, including guitarist Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart, as well as roadies, managers, publicists, wives and girlfriends. Most are surprisingly unguarded in telling the Dead’s story, the ups and downs, the pressures and pleasures of life in a huge band.
The one aspect of the Dead that gets short shrift, deliberately, is the fans. While Bar-Lev interviews a couple of famous Deadheads (he gets into an amiable argument with Sen. Al Franken over which live version of “Althea” is the best), the film views the mass of humanity known as “Deadheads” from a wary distance.
While in the beginning Garcia viewed the fans as an essential part of a Dead show, the band just grew too big, playing stadiums where there were as many fans partying outside as crammed inside. The connection between musician and fan was lost, and Garcia found himself forced into a Messiah-like role he absolutely did not want.
“You don’t want to be the king,” he says in one interview. The film argues that the weight of leading the Dead fueled his heavy drug use, and eventually led to a fatal heart attack in 1995 at the age of 53.
The irony of the film’s ambivalence towards Deadheads is that, of course, they are the target audience for “Long Strange Trip.” And the film is a treasure trove of never-before-seen backstage footage, concert performances, old photos and reminiscences.
But “Long Strange Trip” is a lot more than just a “fan service” documentary. It's a mostly successful attempt to reclaim the Grateful Dead from their mythology and present them in a serious new light that even skeptics can appreciate.