Long Strange Trip is a documentary about the Grateful Dead that feels just like being at one of the band’s concerts. It is a sprawling, swirling psychedelic affair that lives up to its name as it celebrates a band that has notched up over 50 years in the music business as the reigning kings of the counter-culture movement. This documentary occasionally feels like a hagiography but it’s a fun and justified one because it’s ultimately a free-spirited love letter to one crazy, joyful psychedelic band.
This film was a labour of love that was around 15 years in the making for director and self-confessed Deadhead (the name rampant Grateful Dead fans wear as a badge of honour) Amir Bar-Lev. Martin Scorsese – who is no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll documentaries (see Shine A Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) – also serves as executive producer. The Long Strange Trip is broken down into a series of different acts in a loosely-based chronology to tell the story of the group and its fans while also giving some historic context.
A lot of time is naturally devoted to the band’s messianic front man, Jerry Garcia. It talks about his anti-authoritarian stance and his love of things like: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, drugs and beat poetry, especially Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It also shows how the trappings of fame and stardom (something the group never actively courted as they are the most unlikely celebrities out there) were what contributed to Garcia’s premature death at the age of 53 in 1995.
The story of the Dead is traced back to the early days in the hippie movement and their natural habitat in Haight-Ashbury. It also covers the long recording sessions where the group were hyped up on nitrous oxide and the aborted film project, which was due to the group lacing the film crew’s cups with LSD. It also looks at their resurgence in the eighties and how they became like a travelling circus because when crazed Deadheads who “Needed a miracle” (to borrow from the band’s lyrics) as they had lucked out on tickets to Grateful Dead shows decided to simply set up street parties outside of the band’s concerts instead. Party time, excellent!
This film naturally includes a fabulous soundtrack that showcases the band’s music. These songs are complex ones where you can hear the influence of each member’s love of different musical genres like: bluegrass, folk, classical, avant-garde and the blues, as these styles permeate almost every note. This music attracted scores of different fans. There were deafheads, wharf rats, acid heads, coke fiends, spinners (people who spun around dancing ad nauseam), tapers (fans who rabidly bootlegged the band’s shows with the group’s blessing) as well as those who worshiped at the altar of Garcia.
The surviving members of the Grateful Dead are interviewed here while Garcia appears via old videos. Even the group’s elusive lyricist, Robert Hunter appears here though his contributions are as mysterious as his lyrics. Sam Cutler the former tour manager of The Rolling Stones and the Dead is also interviewed and he is a funny and fantastic talent who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. One distinct difference with this documentary is the absence of industry types that tend to be given too much airtime in music documentaries.
Long Strange Trip expertly threads together interviews plus rare archive footage including photographs and films. At around four hours it covers a lot of ground. But it’s also staggering to think that there were still topics that this documentary failed to address like: Woodstock, the individual band member’s solo projects and the individual band member’s childhoods (only Garcia’s is briefly touched on.)
Long Strange Trip is about the magic, myth and madness that was the Grateful Dead. This epic four hour rock documentary is a freewheeling journey through one experimental group’s bizarre world. The film is essential viewing for Deadheads and assorted other freaks who consider themselves Deadheads-in-the-making. This film ultimately proves that once you start loving this band of weirdoes there is a point of no return from this long, strange trip.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Long Strange Trip premiered this week at SXSW. It will be released on Amazon Prime Video on 26th May 2017.