Like America itself, the Grateful Dead were a great melting pot of cultures, genres, and styles. Take a close look at the songs they chose to cover in their 30 years of existence and you’ll see nearly every brand of American music of the last century. From Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the Reverend Gary Davis to Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Marley, Blind Willie Johnson, Leiber and Stoller, Martha and the Vadellas, the Dead played jazz, folk, blues, rock and roll, Appalachian folk music, reggae, and everything in between. They took all those styles and more, blended them in their own LSD-fueled cup of Kool-Aid and made music that can only be described as Grateful Dead music. Or as famed promoter Bill Graham used to say “the Grateful Dead are not the best at what they do, they are the only ones who do what they do.”
Though they made some great albums and evens scored a top 10 hit, every Deadhead knows it was not the studio where the band excelled, but in concert. Live the Grateful Dead turned every song into an adventure. Improvisation was the name of the game and they could take a three-minute rock and roll song, scale it down to its bare structure, then stretch it out until it barely resembled a song at all and jam on it for half an hour. To say that the Grateful Dead were something of an acquired taste would be to put it mildly, but once you got it, there was no turning back. Jerry Garcia once noted that the Dead were like licorice, not everyone likes licorice, he said, but those who do really like licorice. I hate licorice but I love the Grateful Dead, but to explain why is an impossible task for anyone.
Long Strange Trip, the new documentary from director Amir Bar-Lev and producer Martin Scorsese goes a long way into understanding what made the Grateful Dead so successful and why they have such fanatical fans. As a Deadhead myself, I was really excited to watch it. It is a very good documentary, but it rarely digs deeper than any of the other documentaries I’ve seen on the band or the books I’ve read. With few exceptions, the stories it tells are all ones I’ve heard before. Though I will say, hearing them from the mouths of those who lived them was pretty cool.
The film interviews just about everyone who was a major part of the band including extensive conversations with the “core four” (surviving original members, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzman) and archival interviews with Jerry Garcia. They talk to many of the road crew, managers, publicists, and all sorts of others who helped keep the band making music on and off the road. Former manager Sam Cutler is the most interesting with fun stories and telling it like it was and not mincing words. Then there’s the interviews with fans, including more than one stoner and Senator Al Franken. The only person I could think of not included who really ought to have been was Bruce Hornsby who played keyboards for the band for a brief period in the 1990s.
Told roughly in chronological order, it delves into many important (and quite a few not-so-important) chapters in the Dead’s storied career though surprisingly it zips right past some of the bigger ones including Woodstock (where the band played a terrible set and nearly electrocuted themselves to death) and Altamont (where one fan was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel). None of what it does touch on is surprising but it’s all very well told. It’s in the last half-hour where the film finds its moxie. As the band came into the ’90s, Garcia’s struggles with his health and hard-drug addiction began to really affect his ability to play and ultimately to live. Each of the surviving members struggle to come up with retroactive solutions and still seem to have not come to terms with their own culpability in it.
If the stories being told are mostly not all that fresh and exciting, the film more than makes up for it with never-before-seen photos and video clips. It is simply over flowing with old photos culled from personal collections. Someone involved with the band must have always been walking around with a video camera because there is an amazing amount of behind-the-scenes footage. It wouldn’t be a documentary about the Grateful Dead without some incredible music and Long Strange Trip has it in droves. There are numerous concert clips from their 30-year career plus classic pieces from their albums. My favorite moment has to be watching Garcia, Lesh, and Weir working out the harmonies to “Candyman” in 1970. It’s just three guys creating something beautiful and strange in the moment. It’s the Grateful Dead in a nutshell.
Long Strange Trip will most likely delight long time fans of the Grateful Dead. For the uninitiated, it does a good job of detailing what made the band so special and what so many people have loved them for so long. Narratively, it doesn’t go too many places we’ve not seen before but it’s a treasure trove of previously unseen images and sound. At four hours, it’s a bit long even for Deadheads to sit through, and you may be wishing there was a Drums/Space break so you can go to the bathroom and get a fresh beer. But if you are willing to take it as it comes, you’ll find plenty to dance to.