There are no three words by which the Grateful Dead are remembered more than those that mark the end of American Beauty and claim the title of Amir Bar-Lev’s new life-of-the-Dead-spanning documentary—but especially “long.” The Grateful Dead, you see, liked to play long. They were known for performing several-hour sets uninterrupted, 30-minute percussion jams at every show, and they basically toured full-time for 30 years, all of which was quite unprecedented in popular American music. Appropriately, Long Strange Trip comes in at four hours flat, twice the length you’d expect of a band documentary and just the right length to scare off the Dead-curious newcomers that it debatably seeks.
Long Strange Trip adopts no particular angle on the legendary collective other than to be its definitive documentary, in contrast to recent Dead docs including Netflix’s 2014 Bob Weir biographical film The Other One and several concert-footage-based films. With that runtime, it certainly meets all its volume goals. The problem with such a comprehensive, unfocused retelling of this story, though, is that it’s only likely to consistently engage a certain viewer—the exact same viewer who is already plenty familiar with all the sub-plots rehashed here: the San Francisco acid tests, the Ken Kesey leadership, the progress of concert bootlegging. While Long Strange Trip is full of rare or untouched archival video and audio, there are very few revelatory treasures to tell those seriously interested in understanding the Dead’s impact something new.
Long Strange Trip operates foremost as an oral history separated into six acts. Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzman, Mickey Hart, and Donna Jean Godchaux each contribute new interviews, and of those, only Weir is present for candid footage, a couple minutes total of him driving around San Francisco with his wife and digging up archival Dead film. One of the Dead’s two longtime lyric writers is here in John Perry Barlow, while the historically reclusive Robert Hunter is practically absent as expected (save for one 25-second appearance reciting his “Dark Star” lyrics then declining to discuss them), though band members do remark how cool it would be if he gave an interview. The brunt of the narration comes from role players including longtime tour manager Sam Cutler, roadie Steve Parish, and biographer Dennis McNally.
Bar-Lev’s film mirrors a certain dominant, filtered hindsight of the Dead, which tends to glorify the thrilling grassroots wins while skimming over all the tragedy. Despite the film’s length, some of the band’s pivotal lows are omitted entirely, including the saga of drummer Mickey Hart’s father conning and financially crippling the band and their families: an episode that led to Hart leaving the band for three years and inspired Hunter’s lyrics for “He’s Gone”. The song shows up in the film, but it instead soundtracks another loss too big to ignore: the death of 27-year-old wildcard multi-instrumentalist Ronald “Pigpen” McKernan. He was the only primary band member inexperienced and uninterested in LSD, and thus the odd man out during the band’s ritualistic trips, when he’d usually be somewhere off to the side drinking himself to death.
(Guide: Grateful Dead in 10 Songs)
Moments like this are the exceptions to an otherwise glowing portrait of complicated lifestyles in an oversimplified rose tint. Too frequently, Long Strange Trip seems to side with mystique, with the notion of these men as chosen key-holders to truths unattainable for the rest of us. If there’s anything with the power to corroborate that, it’s the music, but the reminiscing of chin-stroking peripheral characters feels like a cheap substitute at best and devaluing at worst. Parish, in particular, is given excessive screen time just to offer comically predictable answers to “What was it like being a longtime roadie for the Grateful Dead?” See for yourself: “We all slept with the same women, we all got messed up together,” and later, “Nitrous oxide puts you in that place where you’re raptured in the deep… You’re brain goes to this place where it’s letting go of reality and consciousness, and you’re dying—you’re gratefully dying.”
Long Strange Trip saves its hardest-hitting material for its sixth and final act, “It Becomes Everything.” By this point, Jerry Garcia has inadvertently trapped himself: The party appeal has outgrown the music appeal of Dead shows, the fans are mostly awful by now, the demands of tour life fatal. Unable to bring himself to cut off income for the crew and their families or to tell nu-Deadheads to cool it (lest he renege on his anti-authoritarian principles), he slides into a binary life between work and heroin that he knows will kill him shortly. It’s here that the film’s two most interesting sources speak up: widow Brigid Meier and daughter Trixie Garcia, whose insights are calm and gut-punching, as she says, “I wish now that he would have just gotten some fucking rest.” It’s the exact kind of sober hindsight that Long Strange Trip could use more of.