The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead

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By the way director Amir Bar-Lev (Happy Valley, The Tillman Story) tells it, making Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead has made his life. And he’s not yet 50.

It’s a big project to take on. Bar-Lev is a self-proclaimed Deadhead and he knew he would be under intense scrutiny, by other Deadheads, for daring to tackle the story of their band, a band akin to a religion for some. Deadheads know everything there is to know about late frontman Jerry Garcia, his bandmates, and every nuanced version of every Dead song ever played.

The documentary is a long strange trip. At four hours, the film -- which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese -- started with a pitch 14 years ago, including 11 years of persuasion. It opened for a week in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles and is available on Amazon Prime Video June 2 in six parts.

Billboard spoke to Bar-Lev in Toronto when he was in town for screenings during Hot Docs about the band’s importance, why it’s the “untold story,” why he doesn’t use the word “jam band,” the lack of females in his film, and why it ends with Garcia’s death and doesn’t get into all the other Dead incarnations and projects.

Was it a great privilege to get the go-ahead to make this film? Even though you pitched it for years, you are the chosen one.

I can tell you that without any hyperbole, it's the great privilege of my life -- besides my family.

Doing the doc is right under having kids, huh?

Truly. Without exaggeration. I thought "this is what I’m leaving the world besides my kids."

Downhill from here?

I wouldn't mind, honestly. I am just telling you, like you want to know where I’m at emotionally about it. I feel something that I've not felt before, which is satisfied and not feeling ambitious and not feeling… I just feel like… it was so hard to make this film. The patient died many times on the table and then it was resurrected. So I feel complete. As an anxious person, I don't really feel complete that much.

As a 45-year-old, what is your relationship with the band? They formed in 1965 before you were born. Why your connection to the Dead versus, say, a Springsteen or the Stones or the Beatles?

Well, I discovered the Grateful Dead as a teenager in the '80s and have been a Deadhead ever since.

But what was it?

You felt like you were connecting with something older than yourself, and older than even the '60s. You felt like there was some continuum that led back through [Jack] Kerouac and even, like, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman and then deeper. I went and studied religion in college and I traced that back to the Grateful Dead. I studied Eastern religion and I'm not alone in having discovered Buddhism through hippiedom [Laughs].

That's a thing that happens and it's not as superficial as it might sound; we’re all part of a lineage. It's really exciting to me the Zen aspect of that lineage. Like if you get down to where the Grateful Dead came from, they came from the acid test and the acid tests were put on by the Merry Pranksters whose motto was, “Never trust a prankster.” I think that's an important distinction in 2017, when so much of hippie-ness is this sort of codified; it's-all-good, sunshine, sparkly unicorn thing, when in fact, at the heart of it, is an almost aggressive insistence on encountering one another.

Isn’t it an aggressive peace movement?

Yes it is, but it's peace through strength [Laughs]. No, it’s peace. It’s about peace, but it’s not peace by like… Well, for some people it is peace through sort of dulling the differences between us, but I don't think it should be that on some level. What the Grateful Dead represented to me, getting into them as a teenager, was an insistence on integrity and being present, that I think is super important for everybody whether you like this music or not today. It was important then and it's even more important today in our self-obsessed culture. The Grateful Dead was like punk rock for me in a way.

In a way they were punk rock in attitude by not conforming.

Yeah. But you wouldn’t know that if you just studied them from a distance because punk rock was punk rock and being a hippie and Deadhead was a different thing.

You don’t use the words "jam band."

I hate the word jam band. I want to be careful, but I'm excited by Jerry's attempts to continually have this thing be vital and relevant and evolve. I think even way back in the '60s, Jerry was aware that tribal affiliation and defining this thing as one thing and not another was anathema to what the Grateful Dead actually can be. So when the Grateful Dead gets called the godfather of the jam band movement, to me that just reeks of the atrophying of the living thing, and it's an encumbrance and the barnacle.

Interestingly, when you look at the artists that have that kind of following -- maybe not as rabid -- but people that go time and time again to see Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Phish, there is that element of freedom to change it up. In Canada, The Tragically Hip is in there too. You need to see the next show because it will be different from this show.

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. The more you know what’s going to happen, the less Grateful Dead it is. The whole idea is that it's without a net. It's unknown. The fans and the band had a pact and the pact was "We're going to let you fall on your face because we would rather you have a bad night, than for you to polish your act and then give us a showbiz shtick with a lot of stage patter and smoke bombs and entertainment gloss," and the rewards were innumerable. They seeped into every part of your life. You started by asking me what they represented to me? It represented a pole star of integrity that I've aspired to and I'm sure the Grateful Dead aspired to and failed that at times, but you knew what being real was as a Deadhead.

So this film is “the untold story”? As we know, there are people that know everything about the Dead. What is untold?

Well it's the telling that's untold. It's not that we're filling in the gaps on the Grateful Dead story in a way that hasn't been done before because I don't give a s--t about the Wikipedia entry of the Grateful Dead. That's not my job. I'm a storyteller trying to make a good film. We went at it in a way that didn’t seek to be exhaustive, but rather sought to refresh the story -- like [including] Frankenstein.

What didn’t you know?

There's so many parts of the Grateful Dead that have been renewed for me. One of the first big surprises for us was this piece of tape where Jerry says, “I figure if I succeed as an artist, there will be something leftover after I'm gone that can't be torn down. I don't want that. I think I'd rather have fun.” That's a really compelling, surprising, counterintuitive thing to hear out of a dead artist, who's built a legacy, who’s built something. 

Most people would want the opposite, right?

Correct. So it had a bunch of effects on me as a Deadhead, but also as a documentary filmmaker who's in the business, who trades in the medium of making things that preserve and freeze the flux of living life for all time. So I had to grapple with that and it led me down a kind of intellectual investigation that renewed the Grateful Dead for me and made me think again about my relationship with their art and also their relationship with time, which is really interesting.

The Grateful Dead were about creating a bunch of fantastic nows. And then there were people like me, documentary filmmakers, tapers, who wanted to bring that now into the future, and that's attention. And you can bring now into the future, but only with limited success and you have to be very creative about how to recreate the now. It involves allowing the now to go away and creating a new now for somebody else. So that's why we end the film with Jerry saying, “You know, in a way I do hope this continues, but it shouldn’t be called the Grateful Dead; it may not even have anything to do with music.”

Of course it does continue in different configurations, but you don’t address that.

No, because I don't want people to limit what it is -- to jam band.

But your doc makes it seem like the Dead ended then with his death?

I think the Grateful Dead did end with his death, but is the Grateful Dead as a life force over? No, it can't be. Because it's in the way [Deadhead] Al Franken is a Senator and it’s in the way Dead & Co. turned kids on to listening to improvisational music. It's alive. The Grateful Dead is alive and dead [Laughs].

In the production notes there’s a line that says, “It’s a heartfelt American tragedy.”

Yeah. Did I say that?

No. It’s just a written synopsis: "It’s an inspiring tale of unfettered artistic expression, a heartfelt American tragedy, incisive history and rise and fall of 20th century counterculture." There is, I guess, a wisp of sadness, when the band gets too big -- with the stadiums, and still people can’t get in, and the rules, and the love story [between Garcia and Barbara Meier] was heartbreaking. You see it unraveling and you cannot stop it.

Well, what was amazing about the Grateful Dead? Coming back to the teenage question again. Here's the thing, the Grateful Dead in the public imagination, now, has become this cartoon that’s all about feeling good and hedonism and dancing bears. In reality the Grateful Dead had lots of sadness to it. Many of the songs are about murder; they're about loss; they're about loneliness and you would have a gathering of 20,000, 50,000 people on LSD and they were singing about a guy being murdered.... They were singing about life as it's lived and that's why they're the greatest rock band of all time in my opinion. That’s arguable. By the way, a lot of their music was great covers. They were tapping into a well of American experience that is informed by our experience trying to tame the west and it's not all good. It's about a lot of murders and loss and loneliness.

Was it the tour manager that said they’re the most American of all bands?

Yeah, there's another American aspect to it and obviously it's not American only. You could say its Greek -- it's democratic. It has to do with the notion that it's a pluralistic vision and everybody's welcome, and it is whatever it's going to be, constitutionally, based on who's hanging around. There's a lot of Hell's Angels hanging around; that's the Grateful Dead. Gatecrashers ruining the scene; that's the Grateful Dead too. And that's a brilliant and very compelling notion for me, especially as an American living in the age of Trump where we are somehow being attracted to this strongman who's interested in power, that we had a leader in the Grateful Dead who didn't want to be a leader, who actually didn't like the idea of there being a leader, who mistrusted charisma and who wanted us all to take responsibility and to work through these things collectively and that was extremely informative for us.

What about the female Deadheads?

Yeah, now that is one regret I have. First of all, the scene inside the Grateful Dead, as I understand it — I wasn't in the scene — but it did have misogynistic streak to it, and most of the people were men.

You’re talking about the fans?

No. I’m talking about in their family. But there were people like Eileen Law, Mountain Girl [Carolyn Garcia], really important women, who I tried to get into the film, but they didn't want to be in the film. So that that's just reality, and then, as far as women Deadheads, that was maybe a more egalitarian scene than their scene, but I got spoiled because I got Steve Silberman and then I got Nick Paumgarten and I had other Deadheads I wanted to get into the film. Once I got Al Franken, it ended up being three male Deadheads. I highly regret that and I tried to acknowledge it in the film. But, look, you wish there were more people of color in the Grateful Dead story; there aren’t. There were parts of it that were a little bit retrograde.

I watched it in a four-hour sitting, but that’s not how you intended. You knew it was going to be chopped into six acts?

No. In reality, it was made very Grateful Dead style. I was commissioned and paid to make a 90-minute film. Normally, when you make a film, any film, you get to a certain point and then you chop it down. We didn't do it that way. We fine cut our way from the beginning. So we basically had a working fine cut and then we were like, “Oh fuck, it’s two hours long, and we’re only in 1974.” So then we had this big come to Jesus moment in a room like this, where I said to the financier, “Guys I think it wants to be a really long film.” I was speaking of it as a creature because I think that's what a film is. So those were my exact words and I know it because my financier is always reminding me of that. “You told us it wanted this and it didn’t want to be cut.” They were terrified. So I said, “I think it wants to be four hours or maybe longer and I'm begging you for the money and time.”

So for people that aren’t Deadheads and maybe don’t even like their music, why should they watch this?

Because, as I told a guy who interviewed me who's gay the other day, I said, “You go see movies that are about heterosexual love.” You don't say, “Oh I'm gay. I don't like women, so I don't care about a movie about women.” You don't have to like the Grateful Dead to be interested in this movie. Every movie I've ever made — I've only made seven — has lived or died based on whether it's about something bigger than the subject matter. So this film, I think, it's about things that you don't have to like the Grateful Dead to be interested in and I'm fortunately aware that with music docs people do that thing; they're like, “Oh, I'm not into that band, I don't want to see that film.” You don't have to do that. It's like any other film. You just want to see it because it's a good story.

And Scorsese, how is he involved?

Scorsese's job was to make sure that I didn't screw up and when I didn't screw up he was not very involved.  He saved the film.

What did he have his hand in?

We wouldn’t be making the film if it weren’t for him because he interceded at a key moment when the band had cold feet, so that was his main role.

And the feedback that you got from the band? You must have been a bit nervous; this is your band.

That’s the thing, to their credit, they’ve invited us all to have different takes on the Grateful Dead and they themselves have different takes on what it is, and so I was never worried that they were going to feel like my take wasn't authoritative because there is no true authority. I did get nervous showing the film to other Deadheads and I'm kind of getting my way through that because the more people complain about one missing song, or this or that, the more I think “Okay, I did my job. We're all cranky Deadheads." [laughs] There should be something in the film for everybody to hate.

What does Al Franken think?

He hasn’t seen it yet, as far as I know. That’s something I'm really looking forward to -- showing Al Franken the film, but I haven't done it yet. As far as I know, he hasn't seen it.