lOnG STrAnGe Trip
Dir Amir Bar-Lev, US 2017. Available to stream on Amazon Prime
For a band that split up over 20 years ago, following the premature death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead have had a pretty good couple of years – live celebrations and audio retrospectives, sell-out tours of giant American stadia by surviving members, and now a four-hour-plus documentary with Martin Scorsese’s name attached to it. Rock ’n’ roll films are best approached with caution – for every Last Waltz there’s a Song Remains the Same – but if anyone deserves this kind of exhaustive treatment, it’s surely the Dead.
The film – divided into six 45-minute ‘acts’ – begins in a world just prior to the one evoked by Gary Lachman in his feature on the ‘Summer of Love’ (pp40-47), a folkie California where the countercultural torch was being passed from the Beats to the bands, via Kesey and his Acid Tests. Dope smoking and banjo picking gave way to hallucinogens and electric guitars, and the Warlocks metamorphosed – via a divinatory encounter with a dictionary – into the Grateful Dead, avatars of the new psychedelia.
Director Amir Bar-Lev follows the band through its 30-year history – not always in strict chronology and sometimes through Dead-like thematic excursions into such topics as the taping phenomenon (giving away your music turns out to be the best marketing device ever dreamt up) and the Deadhead subculture – charting the highs, lows and surprises along the way. The band’s flight from the Haight to the country after the Summer of Love, the travelling circus of the Europe ’72 tour, acid alchemist and mad scientist Owsley Stanley’s terrifying Wall of Sound PA system, playing the Pyramids, and the bizarre development of scoring a Top 40 hit and becoming a star turn in Reagan’s America are all documented through archival footage (some never before seen) and fascinating latter-day interviews.
Essentially, though, this is the story of a family – a dysfunctional tribe of drugged-up misfits and anarchists united by a desire to connect through music. According to their-long suffering English tour manager Sam Cutler (the film’s most hilariously roguish raconteur), the pathologically anti-hierarchical, anti--celebrity Dead couldn’t even agree on whether or not they should pose for a publicity photo, so their attempts to deal with (or not) the mainstream world and the music business were always going to be tricky. It’s a story that starts off full of innocence, creativity and laughter (lots of that, as when the British film crew supposed to be making a film about the band end up dosed and filming their own legs).
But inevitably, it becomes a tale about Garcia, the charismatic musical genius who rejected the entire notion of permanency and legacy in favour of an exploding moment of what he described as ‘fun’ (one irony being that the Dead ended up the most exhaustively documented band of all time). And Garcia’s other refusal – of any sort of leadership of the Dead operation – had begun to have serious consequences by the 1990s: with all the employees, crew and family members waiting on their monthly paychecks, the Dead couldn’t stop, even if they wanted to. In the film’s last act, everything darkens as the consequences of Garcia’s unwillingness to control the Frankenstein’s monster (a figure that had haunted his imagination since childhood) he’d created become chillingly clear. And it’s in the last act that you realise Bar-Lev has, like the Dead, been playing a long game, bringing his thematic chickens home to roost in this American tragedy about the nature and cost of freedom.
Like the insatiable fans in the film, though, I was left wanting more: four hours is nowhere near enough to tell all the stories, and a documentary – even one as good as this – is never going to capture that specific jouissance that make the Dead unique. But (sorry Jerry!) the music remains, and it’s never too late to get on the bus.