The Grateful Dead have never been a short and sweet band. This is a band that made it’s legend playing the famous Acid Tests where Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters dosed arenas full of kids with LSD. The Dead would play for hours although it could have been days. The bands first albums were noted for sounding like one jam without any real singles. At their height, they could play a five hour show without a care. While so many of their peers from the ’60s San Francisco scene faded away or died, Dead were playing stadiums until recently. So it’s not a shocker that a documentary about the band would last four hours. Long Strange Trip delivers on its promise because this is not a boilerplate Behind the Music episode about the Grateful Dead.
The movie opens with the tale of how Jerry Garcia went from Bluegrass fanatic to electric rocker. He wanted a bigger audience for their gigs. Things got bigger when he hooked up with the Pranksters and basically became the house band for an entire city. There’s footage of them playing on a truck and shutting down a large chunk of San Francisco. The interesting fact that comes up is that they really weren’t that passionate about being signed by a record label. While Jefferson Airplane made radio hits, the Dead spent their first three records doing odd experiments and running up the studio tab. They just viewed albums as a necessary evil for being a touring band. Warners comes off as shocked when in 1970 the band gave Warners Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty which contained actual songs including “Truckin’,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Casey Jones.” While none became Top 40 hits, they did become staples of classic rock radio over the decades. The Dead were a band that hated publicity and this gets illustrated with footage from a failed Grateful Dead concert film. In the early ’70s, the band arrived in England and discovered the label had a documentary crew ready to follow them around in Don’t Look Back style. Instead of just hiding in their trailer, the band warmly offered the camera crew drinks. Little did the English realize that you never ever accept a drink from the Dead. In a few minutes, they were tripping on LSD. The footage shot shows what happens when you have a camera and your eyes are full of images you can’t film.
The biggest take away I received from the film was a greater appreciation for “Morning Dew” off Europe ’72 album. The band was deeply in debt to Warner Brothers so they recorded the entire European Tour in order to put together a live album. The band had recruited a fan with experience to follow them around in the mobile recording unit. He basically was stuck in the truck during all the shows riding the knobs to make sure things sounded right on the master tape. He got frustrated when a roadie wouldn’t fix a drum microphone that was become a problem so he put on a fresh tape, locked the door on the truck and snuck inside to fix the stand himself. When he got to the stage and fixed it, he didn’t want to go back to truck. He just sat down to hear the music that had changed his life. Jerry Garcia spotted him and gave him a look to let him know it was cool and then the band broke into a transcendent 10 minute version of “Morning Dew” that emotionally stuck Garcia and others. Sitting in the movie theater hearing the 5.1 mix created for the film, the emotions of the song were still powerful.
Long Strange Trip already has its release set up for a one night showing across the country in movie theaters on May 26. If you have a theater with a fine surround sound system, you’ll want to buy a ticket. Director Amir-Bar Lev’s audio mix is a beauty to behold. The Carolina Theater’s Cinema One elevated the musical moments. There is an intermission so you get to move around and refresh your beverage. While the movie will play longer in certain markets, Long Strange Trip is set to debut June 2 on Amazon Prime.
I had a chance to talk to Amir-Bar Lev during the festival about the film. Here’s the footage.
Joe Corey is the author of “The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters.” This is the last how to get a job book you’ll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary “Moving Midway.” He’s worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American’s Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN’s Gaters. He’s been featured on The Today Show and CBS’s 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, “Joe, you look like an axe murderer.” He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.