After 50 years, more than 2,300 concerts, and no shortage of chronicles — both the kind you read and the kind you watch — what is left to say about the Grateful Dead? Plenty, it turns out.
In Long Strange Trip, the new Amazon documentary executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, director Amir Bar-Lev (Happy Valley) depicts the psychedelic pioneers in vivid, often riveting detail. Clocking in at four hours — a daunting run time that channels the band’s fabled live shows — the film, like the Dead themselves, demands total commitment, and it rewards those who hop aboard for the ride.
Don’t fear, neophytes: The doc provides plenty of context as it runs through the band’s history, from their jug-band roots to their Haight-Ashbury hippie days to stadium stardom. But the film still offers lots for Deadheads, and the extensive length allows Long Strange Trip to get pretty far-out. Major band members are interviewed, including the late Jerry Garcia, whose archival clips prove a major narrative force. Bar-Lev also scores top-notch stories from longtime roadie Steve Parish, colorful ’70s tour manager Sam Cutler, celebrity Deadhead Sen. Al Franken, and more. He even tracks down reclusive lyricist Robert Hunter for a brief encounter that’s one of the film’s funniest moments.
Naturally, the film incorporates plenty of stellar Dead recordings, from acid-soaked ’60s jams to their 1987 top 10 hit, “Touch of Grey.” (The soundtrack is being released this week too.) Bar-Lev’s tendency to reduce lengthy musical improvisations to bite-size nuggets can frustrate, but certain archival clips astound: Rehearsal footage of Garcia and bandmates Bob Weir and Phil Lesh workshopping harmonies for 1970’s “Candyman” is pure Dead nirvana. The doc’s momentum ebbs and flows, but that rhythm will feel right-on to anyone who ever saw the Dead perform. It’s all about finding the gems, and Long Strange Trip is a treasure chest. B+