Besides confirming that a single film project will not be sufficient to fully and comprehensively tell the story of the Grateful Dead, there are two other main takeaways from Long Strange Trip. Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary is worth seeing just for the footage of the group, especially in their early days, and this four-hour movie on the iconic band resembles nothing so much as one of their shows with more teases than segues.
The wealth of information about the Dead, available in a variety of forms, no doubt presented the filmmaker with an imposing challenge. Nevertheless, it remains unclear exactly what point of view Bar-Lev gleaned from it all in formulating The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead. Neither his purpose nor his direction is readily discernible, chronologically or otherwise, so the film’s jump from the early recording sessions to the first tour of Europe contains only minimal logic.
If there were more structure to this movie, apart from its sequencing in five parts, then the footage of the group yukking it up in the studio, just prior to stage shots of the band on stage in Europe wearing clown masks, would clarify an otherwise absent continuity. It’s reasonable to forgive Bar-Lev if he simply lost his bearings in delving into the treasure trove of the Grateful Dead vault; if band member (Bob Weir) is taken aback by what he discovers, imagine the amazement of a self-professed Deadhead, even one on a professional mission. And however the director found his way to the courageous theories he implies regarding Garcia that consumes the last hour or so of the film (equally rife with rationalization as remorse), there’s no underestimating the bravery it took to include the material necessary for that particular story-line, uncomfortable as it may make some fans of the Grateful Dead.
The aforementioned linkages ultimately turn out to be overly isolated instances of narrative that, were they more numerous, would suggest enough linear flow and remove the random air that too often permeates this piece. There’s little reason to skip the underlying reason for the Live Dead album-a concert recording conceived at least in part to save money on a recording budget right after Warner Brothers label president Joe Smith has just spoken about exorbitant costs to produce the second Grateful Dead studio album Aoxamoxoa. This sequence results in a virtual non-sequitur because the account of the economical approach suggested by Garcia for Workingman’s Dead appears so much later in the movie (and only superficially at that).
Such erratic editing occurs for much of Long Strange Trip after it begins so promisingly with a brisk introduction and speedily-paced account of the gestation of the Grateful Dead as a musical unit. Amir Bar-Lev places an appropriate focus on the influence of Jerry as the titular leader of the band for most of it existence, but if there is one overriding conclusion to draw from his film, it’s rooted in an ultimately unflattering portrait of the late guitarist/composer.
Garcia’s concentration on doing things for fun, beginning with Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, turns into clear-cut avoidance of pragmatic reality with the increasing drug use leading to the diabetic coma he suffered in 1986. Add to that his unwillingness to assume a role of leadership to address the unwieldy crowds that plagued Grateful Dead tours in the wake of the popularity spawned by “Touch of Grey” and a man the whole band rightfully admired thus appears as the definition of irresponsible.
And it’s not a huge stretch to interpret the filmmaker’s jaundiced view of such abdication of honor in the personal context as well. In an awkward sequence of events framed by recollections from publicist and Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally, in 1993 Garcia willfully brought an intimate of his early days, Brigid Meier, back into his life to marry her, then spurned the woman (at least according to her account) in a confrontation about his return to using. In this light, Amir Bar-Lev seems to suggest, though tentatively, that the single mutually beneficial relationship Jerry Garcia maintained during the course of his life was his songwriting partnership with Robert Hunter.
Yet, apart from customarily erudite but unusually emotional observations from McNally on the duo’s final spurt of creativity—which included the chilling reminiscence titled “Days Between”–Hunter hardly gets his rightful due over the course of The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead, If only the sequence of Weir and his wife going to visit Hunter on the spur of the moment after an interview segment had reached its proper denouement, but it doesn’t: as this segment fades, Hunter hasn’t appeared at the door of his home.
Even with just a bit more logic woven into the spontaneity and surprise that often makes this film delightful and it might’ve become truly brilliant and, in typically idiosyncratic Grateful Dead style, deserving of a title borrowed from the vividly-wrought latter-day composition referenced above. As it is, even with Martin Scorsese as executive producer, a man who’s proven he can skillfully devise pieces of cinema devoted to musical icons (Bob Dylan and George Harrison) that are as enlightening as they are engrossing, Long Strange Trip cannot quite fully transcend the level of cliche that phrase has assumed over the years.