The Grateful Dead’s ‘Long Strange Trip’ and the Pleasures of the Four-Hour Music Bio-Doc

These epic biographical films are for fans — of both the musicians and the filmmakers.

Early in the new documentary Long Strange Trip, the Grateful Dead’s longtime publicist Dennis McNally confesses, “It’s a real challenge, if you’re not already a Deadhead, to love the Grateful Dead.” At that moment, I sat right up in my seat, as if I’d been subtweeted on screen. Was McNally calling me out? You see – and all fanhood is deeply personal, but no fan population is quite as personally vested as the Grateful Dead’s, so let’s go first-person here – I have always been, at best, agnostic about the group. They were important, sure, and beloved, just never particularly by these ears. So, you might ask, why on earth was I seeing a four-hour documentary about a band I felt indifferently about?

The short version of the answer is, simply, the filmmaker. Director Amir Bar-Lev previous work includes My Kid Could Pain That, The Tillman Story, and Happy Valley; he’s an intelligent and arresting documentarian, and I’ll see anything he puts out. But the longer answer to the question also lies in the short answer. Over the past decade-plus, the four hour, two-part retrospective bio-doc by the respected filmmaker has become something of a rite of passage for musical legends; Martin Scorsese did No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Peter Bograndovich did Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, Alex Gibney did Sinatra: All or Nothing At All, and Alison Ellwood did The History of the Eagles. (Spike Lee’s documentaries on Michael Jackson’s Bad and Off The Wall, though made separately, probably fall under this umbrella as well.) Super-fans were going to see them regardless; casual admirers or even novices might be more likely to check them out because of the people on the other side of the camera, who, in turn, pocket what is presumably a nice paycheck. Everybody wins!

Scorsese is credited as an executive producer on Long Strange Trip, which tells the full, three-plus decade story of the Dead, interviewing the surviving members, support staff, family, and fans. And fans will find plenty to love here: it’s stuffed with home movies, performance clips, and tour films, some familiar, some from deep in the archives – previously unseen footage of the group working in the studio, travelling, and goofing off. Everyone else will deem it a serviceable introduction to the group, portraying their humble beginnings and the evolution of their sound, from acoustic folk/bluegrass to electric blues to a bouillabaisse of styles and influences, through their commercial struggles, personal woes, and unexpected late-career resurgence.

Bar-Lev separates their story into acts, and has a good time telling it. He calls upon surround sound, layered audio, and discombobulating video to convey the LSD experience and scene. He uses witty archival clips and a recurring Frankenstine motif (trust me, it makes sense in the movie) to illustrate the fast-paced interviews, which often intermingle and intercut (sometimes line by line) the memories of multiple subjects. And the interviews are wonderfully candid, from their former road manager Sam Cutter (who explains, of their business fumbles, “The Grateful Dead were dumb”) to, surprisingly enough, Senator and pronounced Deadhead Al Franken, who straight-up geeks out about the band (“Did you listen to it?” ha asks the filmmakers, of a particularly beloved live recording. “Am I right?”)

But most importantly, he adopts a filmmaking style that mirrors the music, free to go off on long jags and improvisations. Some of the more inspired and fascinating pieces – a lengthy dip into the camaraderie and customs of the Deadheads, the story of how an early tour film came apart because the group kept getting the film crew too high to shoot – probably wouldn’t make the customary two-hour cut. But these sidebars add flavor in addition to time. And there’s something to be said for getting lost in a four-hour movie, set adrift from the traditional markers of time, so that by the film’s conclusion, you feel like you’ve been on a journey too.

There’s a great moment, during the section concerning their 1972 European tour, when Bar-Lev interviews the engineer taxed with recording those shows for an eventual live album. He tells a story about how he got the recording of “Morning Dew” on the very last night of that tour, and as he talks about how they played it, he still chokes up at the memory. Even if the music doesn’t get you like that (guilty), you’re drawn in; the film’s looseness allows some kind of transference of that love and emotion to the viewer. And, best of all, they have time to just let the song play. Nobody’s in a hurry; we’re just there to have fun. Just like Jerry would’ve wanted.

“Long Strange Trip” will screen as a “One Night Only” special engagement in 50+ cities tomorrow night, followed by a theatrical runs in New York (IFC Center) and Los Angeles (Laemmle Monica) Friday before streaming worldwide on Amazon Prime Video on June 2.