Consider this a mantra, oft in need of repeating, of the music doc – in order to be truly great the film must not simply rely upon a predisposition towards the music you’re experiencing. Music is so powerful, so intensely connected to the deepest levels of our aesthetic that it often is used to mask mediocrity. Similarly, one can craft a wholly pedestrian, lazy work that involves snippets of greatest hits and poorly shot concert footage, chuck in a couple talking-head style interviews, and for fans that’ll be enough.
It’s a rare film, then, that works because it demonstrates its importance for neophytes and even for those who actively dislike a given act. You can despise The Band all you like and The Last Waltz will be a cinematic wonder, you can think that the Talking Heads are silly and Stop Making Sense will forever be cherished. From Don’t Look Back through to Under African Skies or Montage of Heck these are films of ambition that tell important, fascinating stories regardless of whether you’re already disposed to fall for the musical elements contained with.
Which brings us to Amir Bar-Lev’s Long Strange Trip, a film as sprawling as the Grateful Dead’s music and career. Its ambition is to condense in a mere four hours decades of not only the band’s career but the phenomenon of the “Dead Head”, the disparate community of tapers, spinners, stoners that as one interviewee forms a Mandala-like structure surrounding the band.
In other words, Long Strange Trip is a film perfectly suited for fans, just as it’s perfectly suited for those unaware of the phenomenon or longevity of this band. Equally, and this is the tricky bit, it’s a film that works even for those that despise this group. Their tired covers of Dylan and the Young Rascals sound ramshackle and mundane, Garcia’s blues scales a poor simulacrum for other masters of neo-Americana like Robbie Robertson or even Clapton, their psychedelic experimentation paltry compared Pink Floyd, their hippie ethos and musicality excoriated by the likes of Frank Zappa. If anything, those like this author who find little to engender themselves to this group will find more ammunition for their disdain, finding that with sober ears and minds even the “you had to be there” refrain of most Dead Heads reaches a higher level of preposterous.
Yet even from this churlish vantage point Long Strange Trip is in its own way magnificent, a clear and sprawling tale that may not be encyclopedic in its style but certainly provides a rich and varied look at the group, its fans and its role over the decades. With sympathetic interviews by surviving band members, some insightful comments from the likes of music journalists and even one U.S. Senator, we get a remarkable and thorough insight into the group’s work. There are delightful touches, from the Warner Brother’s record executive primping for his shot to Jerry Garcia’s daughter's own powerful testimony, that allow the film to become far more about the effects these decades of works had than the simple story of a band.
For it’s the phenomenon that’s fascinating in the end, and the film is wise to delicately articulate the myriad forms of the Dead’s impact without becoming part of the evangelization of the band. Greater artists than Garcia have been assassinated, either by the likes of Mark Chapman or at their own hand via needle or bottle, yet Jerry’s tragic addictions, his trenchant refusal to be trenchant and the veritable cult that reached messianic proportions, makes so much more sense thanks to the craft of this documentary.
For those who have collected every taped performance and traveled caravan-like show to show there will be plenty here to enthrall. Documentary footage that has sat in the cans for decades has been unleashed, much of it from a project that fell apart when the members of the group surreptitiously hooked themselves on psychedelics. We hear firsthand how the acid trips formed both the ethos and crutch of the group, finding humour in their sociopathic antics such as spiking the coffee on a Playboy TV show with LSD.
Told by those within the cult, these are amusing anecdotes. Seen with a semblance of distance from their aura these are the appalling, infantile antics of a group seemingly incapable of simply having their music speak for itself. Yet those were the times, man, and space is given to those that would criticize any naysayers as being simply part of the problem rather than the solution.
It’s all these elements that far overshadowed what these men were like as an actual musical act. Yet beneath the pomp and psychedelic pageantry, there was a group mixing country, bluegrass, Avant Garde and blues music into a heady brew, disparate musicians each providing a different facet into the whole. It’s here that the work is most convincing, showing that there was in fact much to admire musically about this group, and that through pleading and tuneful moments their transcendence could be experienced without the need for pharmaceuticals.
The Grateful Dead deserve this film, regardless of one's appreciation for their craft. They did play an incredibly important role in solidifying for millions a particular ethos, and in their downfall paradoxes, from heroin to embracing the Hell’s Angels, one can see explicitly how a small movement in the Haight Ashbury was quickly consumed by competing interests. What started as a simple thing became complex and often contradictory, and this film traces that migration beautifully.