From its conception in the sleepy suburbs of Palo Alto in 1965 to its current iterations, the Grateful Dead has never shied from controversy — over the course of 50 years, the band has transitioned from creating psychedelic rock music of relative obscurity to becoming the high-stakes leader of an untamable counterculture movement embraced by generations. Yet the band’s penchant for unconstrained rock-and-roll in the face of growing establishment attitude did not come without deep personal costs, as Berkeley-native and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev explores in his documentary “Long Strange Trip.”
Told over a series of six acts, “Long Strange Trip” chronicles the journey of the Grateful Dead — as well as that of its individual members — through every aspect of the band’s development, from the group’s LSD-infused performances at local Acid Tests in the ‘60s to its prophetlike status among the millions of Dead Heads that followed the band around the country during its peak.
Integrating previously unseen footage, recent interviews and other forms of media, Bar-Lev introduces viewers to the Grateful Dead in a refreshing manner. The film delves into the rarely-discussed emotional toll that the band’s success exacted on its members — especially as the band struggled to control its own fan base of counterculture radicalists that threatened to alter the band’s genuine message of free expression.
Having risen to fame in the wave of political activism that overtook the Bay Area in the ‘60s, the Grateful Dead was heavily influenced by the quirkiness of the location that surrounded it. A Bay Area native himself, director Bar-Lev discussed this unique aspect of the location, saying, “The Bay Area needs to keep itself weird. It was very weird when I was growing up, and there is a lot of weirdness here still, but it’s harder to be weird now because as soon as you do something funky, it becomes co-opted and sold back to you by a corporation. I’m waiting for the next big wave of weirdness to hit from young people, and I’m going to jump aboard.”
One of the film’s most striking elements is its investigations into the life and motivations of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead singer. As the band grew in fame, Garcia’s dedication to an egalitarian relationship with both his bandmates and his adoring fans culminated in his own downfall. As Bar-Lev explores Garcia’s distaste for a businesslike approach to music, he unveils the way in which Garcia turned to heroin to isolate himself rather than confront his unruly followers.
In reference to Garcia’s attitude toward the band’s music, Bar-Lev stated, “I think the interesting thing about Jerry Garcia is that he wasn’t interested in ideological purity. The result was that there was a great variety of people around the Grateful Dead. There were flower-wearing, barefoot hippie chicks and scary motorcyclists and there were deaf Grateful Dead fans and sober Grateful Dead fans and preppies and old and young people, gay, straight, and we figured out a way to all coexist in the space of a Grateful Dead concert. Society is less like that right now.”
Through “Long Strange Trip,” Bar-Lev effectively uses the Grateful Dead’s dedication to pure music to address a topical issue within the entertainment industry. The resounding theme of the film is based in a global obsession with self-image that has compromised the music industry to the extent that artists seem to prioritize mass appeal over commitment to the art itself. Despite being four hours in length, the film manages to engage audiences with its subtle approach to the psychedelic cinematic style. “Long Strange Trip” exerts itself in the mainstream discussion of the dangers of self-obsession, launching its message far beyond the Grateful Dead itself.
Bar-Lev explained, “Jerry Garcia is an example of a guy who wasn’t comfortable with a lot of attention. He didn’t want to be put up on a pedestal and he sought out a level playing field of relationship with his fans. I think it’s refreshing to remind oneself that that’s possible.”