Monday, May 22, 2017

Long Strange Trip: The Grateful Dead in Four Hours

The Grateful Dead were an anomaly. They were hippies with work ethics. While the band was intact, they played an estimated 2,350 live gigs—an officially recognized Guinness World’s Record. Of course, that life on the road took a toll. The surviving band members look back on the music and the entire madcap phenomenon in Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour documentary-palooza Long Strange Trip (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Grateful Dead was one of the few bands whose members even casual listeners could name—at least as far as lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and maybe percussionist Mickey Hart. The true blues could also easily rattle off the names of bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutmann, and the late keyboarder player, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. The Dead were unusual in many ways, one being they considered their regular lyricists John Perry Barlow and Robert Hunter to be members of the band. They processed a rich gumbo of styles, including bluegrass from Garcia, jazz and avant-garde music from Lesh, and the blues from McKernan, synthesizing it into the original rock & roll jam band.

As Joe Smith, the former president of Warner Bros. Records readily attests, marketing the undisciplined Dead was a challenge in the early days. They racked up an enormous debt to the label by using their initial recording sessions as tutorials in studio production techniques. Of course, it is easy for him to look back and laugh, given the money the label made on the more stripped-down, Americana-influenced Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums. In fact, it is rather interesting to watch Long Strange and PBS’s American Epic in short succession.

Inevitably, The Dead decided they were much more of a live band than a recording act. Essentially, they subscribed to a jazz-like ethos that every set should be different, with no predetermined set lists. Yet, the very unpredictability and in-the-moment nature of Dead shows gave rise to a culture of bootleg “Tapers,” who religiously documented every set, eventually with the band’s officially blessing.

Initially, Long Strange is a bit unfocused, but the film locks in when the band really starts to establish its identity. Frankly, the participating band alumni (including Barlow and back-up singer Donna Jane Godchaux) are all quite forthcoming about the band’s excesses and tragedies. Weir and his co-founding members admit they let McKernan feel too isolated within the band. They tried not to make the same mistake with Garcia in the mid-1990s, but it seems the iconic musician just didn’t want to be helped. However, when it comes to from-the-hip reminiscing, nobody can top the Dead’s former road manager, Sam Cutler. He was only with the band during the years of 1970-1974, but what long, strange years they were.

In fact, Bar-Lev consistently exposes the darkness lurking just below the hippy-dippy Deadhead experience. Frankly, much of the film serves as a cautionary warning against drug abuse and the increasingly intrusive idolatry of fans. He also gets a rare glimpse of the notoriously interview-averse Hunter, but no sound-bites.

At four hours and two minutes, Long Strange runs about half an hour longer than executive producer Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Yet, jazz fans will be frustrated Bar-Lev never found time for Ornette Coleman, Merl Saunders, and Bruce Hornsby, all of whom notably collaborated with the band. It also seems strange he left out the Dead’s involvement with The New Twilight Zone, because it would have fit nicely with Garcia’s fascination with the Universal Frankenstein movies, which Bar-Lev uses as a recurring motif.

Still, the film has a good handle on what made the Dead and their music so successful. It vividly evokes the tenor of their successive eras, without idealizing any of them. Bar-Lev really makes the case they were the quintessential American rock band of the Twentieth Century. Recommended for serious Deadheads and causal listeners curious enough to invest four hours, Long Strange Trip opens this Friday (5/26) in New York, at the IFC Center.