lOnG STrAnGe Trip

Dir Amir Bar-Lev, US 2017. Avail­able to stream on Ama­zon Prime

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Films - David Sut­ton

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.

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