How should we memorialize American artists who fought to remain free? For thirty years, the Grateful Dead were an unlikely success story, a band that defied genres and broke all the rules. They created an inimitable idiom of 20th Century Americana fed by bluegrass, gospel, reggae, folk ballads, blues, soul and jazz, blended with rhythms and melodies from all over the world. Their sound contained multitudes, attracting a dedicated and diverse fan base which amplified the band’s subcultural “misfit power” and made them the highest-grossing concert act in history. Amir Bar-Lev’s Long Strange Trip, which opens theatrically this weekend before premiering on Amazon Prime June 2nd, begins its narrative in 1948, when a six-year old Jerry Garcia lost his father, and leads us deftly toward the present. As the people who shared that trip add their testimonials to this collective work of remembrance, the film’s perspectives expand like a splash wave of connections, enveloping the story in larger concentric circles rippling from core members, to roadies to Deadheads.
When Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, and the other members of the Grateful Dead family became fellow travelers in Menlo Park, they had lost faith in an America culture weighed down by conformity. Coming from different places and traditions, they were all, as Alan Trist recounts, “looking for something meaningful in life,” committed to becoming something new together. They started shedding the burden of history at Ken Kesey’s acid tests, paying a buck at the door like everyone else and gifting the psychotropic community with their music. The musical freedom and spiritual awakening they experienced served as their ideal. “It was about possibilities,” Jerry recounts, “and they were in the air.” They found freedom participating in a uniquely American collective democratic project that produced unforgettable musical treasures.
There are many threads running through the six-act, four-hour tapestry of memory that Bar-Lev weaves in Long Strange Trip. Almost all of them are colored by a question raised by Sam Cutler, the Dead’s tour manager in the early 70s: “What does it mean to be an American artist?” The film finds answers to this complicated question in the Dead’s intensely democratic aesthetic, which Jerry described as “music by friction, or by opposites.” As in American society, this pluralist blending of different voices, though risky, was richly rewarding. They believed that music worked best when musicians with different strengths listened and communicated with one another; as Bob Weir put it, “if we listen to each other and lean on each other, and react meaningfully, stuff is gonna happen.” The struggles within the group were often very real and the film, taking a lesson from the Dead’s ethical project, lets these different voices assert their memories about what went right and what went wrong along the way.
One pivotal memory, revealed in Jerry’s last interview, recurs throughout the film as a frame. Right after his father died, Jerry’s mother took him to see Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein. The combined experience of fear and laughter changed his life. It taught him that welcoming weirdness, even frighteningly different things, was crucial to his growth and freedom as a person and an artist. The Frankenstein memory shifts shapes and resonances as the story unfurls, accenting the cosmic interplay captured by the band’s name. In the first act, “It’s Alive,” the monster serves as a metaphor for a band formed from different people and parts, shocked to life to escape the grave of a moribund culture. Later, the perspective shifts and Jerry becomes an anti-authoritarian Dr. Frankenstein, at times frightened by the power of his creation, yet yearning for it to keep growing and learning without setting limits on it. By the end of the film, animated by the MTV-era chart-topper, “A Touch of Grey,” the monster becomes the crowd, feeding off itself and losing control as it becomes disconnected from the musical ethos of the band.
Such dangerous dynamism was always part of the bargain. “There was a conscious decision in my life to be involved in something that was living,” Jerry remembers, and the meditation about death running throughout Long Strange Trip is always also about living. Their name drawn from medieval stories about the dead returning to remind the living about karma, the Grateful Dead was never about the macabre. For Dead publicist Dennis McNally, whose voice returns throughout the film as a guide, the message was always about “how you live your life, and how you relate to other people. By confronting death, you learn how to live.” The band took this recovered worldview, electrified it and made it new: since life was short, live in the now. Bar-Lev memorializes the Grateful Dead’s ongoing encounter with the utter paradoxes of life, embracing and affirming the moment, and saying no to death through a constant yes. “You have to work things out,” Jerry says at one point. The question becomes “how can you have freedom and still work it out?”
Jerry’s ideas about American liberty flowed from his ethical quest for “a simple life, a good life.” Yet the film shows us how complicated such freedom can be. If the Grateful Dead was going to manifest the same democratic spirit at their concerts that the members of the band felt when they were improvising, they had to accept all kinds of people into the community, even Hell’s Angels prone to violence. Organizing a collective enterprise with no central authority created enormous strains on its members and tensions not resolved in the music often led to unhealthy forms of self-abuse and exhaustion. In the penultimate act called “Deadheads,” when Dead shows became sociological rituals as complex as a Tibetan Mandala wheel - with a Jerry Zone, a Phil Zone, and zones populated by Spinners, Wharf Rats and Tapers - Jerry still refused to assume any authority, risking that always saying yes and welcoming the paradoxes of pluralism would work so long as the band kept listening and reacting.
Even as they reached their commercial peak in the late 80s, the Grateful Dead succeeded by defying industry conventions. At a time when the music industry was squeezing the life out of music, making it a fixed commodity that followed over-hyped trends and stuck to profit-driven formulas, the Dead never played the same show twice and gave their live music away. Bar-Lev reminds us that the experience of the audience was what mattered, a fact attested to by the fortune they spent designing, building and transporting their legendary audio system, the Wall of Sound. Constantly changing the songs they played and how they played them – for better or for worse – encouraged the community to listen for nuances and for Deadheads like Al Franken to trade tapes like captured moments in time. Yet as groupies became cult-like in their devotion to the band and began mistaking Jerry for a latter-day prophet deified by the spectacle of their massive stadium shows, the freedom the band fought for slipped through their grasp.
Long Strange Trip reminds us throughout that the Dead’s fight for freedom was often a matter of survival. “This is Now,” the film’s second act, recovers a never-before-seen attempt by Warner Bros. to monetize the band by making a concert film. We also learn why the company repressed this memory: the band dosed the film crew. But the merry prank was an act of resistance, a symbol of the band’s ongoing fight for freedom against the music industry’s deadly machinery. Like the musical formulas the band avoided, the film resists ready-made psychedelic visuals that would be all-too easy. Even in its most surreal sequence, a depiction of Jerry’s memory of his diabetic coma, Bar-Lev gives us cinema in the service of ideas. We experience a kind of mystical cinematic transcendentalism: the Grateful Dead, its entire history as the musical embodiment of the paradoxes of American pluralism, is all brought together through montage, a living memory that flashes back and even forward to the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts. Everything, past present and future, is presented in the now.
Long Strange Trip is the kind of memorial that the Grateful Dead deserve, a work of art that, like the band’s music and lyrics, allows meaning to unfold for individual viewers and leaves you wanting more stories and more of the remixed musical stems that serve as the soundtrack. “Monuments,” Dennis McNally reminds us, “are an attempt to subvert death…to freeze it forever. That is exactly opposite of what Jerry wanted. From the very beginning Jerry wanted to do something in real time and to touch people’s hearts. He wanted to make the Grateful Dead as open ended as possible.” With Long Strange Trip, Amir-Bar Lev has done just that. And at a time in the American democratic experience when pluralism and difference are being silenced by a corporate culture that only wants you to consume and conform, a whole new generation will be reminded by this film that beauty flows best from a good life, one that embraces ambiguity, difference and dissent, and challenges us to keep fighting the good fight in the name of freedom.