It took 14 years for Amir Bar-Lev to make the Grateful
Dead documentary, “Long Strange Trip,” 10 of which was spent
just trying to convince the band to let him make it.
What was intended to be a 90-minute doc that would be
released for the band’s 50th anniversary in 2015 led to a
4-hour, 6-part doc that’s now available on Amazon
Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev is no stranger to ambitious
He’s given us a look inside the complexities behind a 4-year-old
painting savant (“My Kid Could Paint That”), explored
the hero complex bestowed on an NFL star who went to fight for
his country after 9/11 (“The Tillman Story“), and was
front-and-center while the legacy of Joe Paterno and his beloved
Penn State football program crumbled before our eyes (“Happy Valley”).
However, none of those compare to taking on the Grateful Dead,
and its lead guitarist and figurehead Jerry Garcia, in his latest
movie, “Long Strange Trip.”
“This is the film I’m most proud of,” Bar-Lev told Business
Insider. “On some level, this is my life’s work.”
For over a decade, Bar-Lev, an admitted “Dead Head,” tried to
convince the band that he was the director worthy of making the
definitive film on the legendary band. It finally happened, but
there were many twists in the tale of how “Long Strange Trip” was
made, including how Bar-Lev landed the job at long last.
Other directors failed
The Grateful Dead’s original plan was to have a 90-minute
documentary to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the band
(which would have been released in 2015). But like the
unconventional way the Grateful Dead operates, “Long Strange
Trip” became a daunting task to accomplish from its inception.
Before Bar-Lev came on, other directors tried to tell the story
and had to back out, in some cases because of all the moving
parts that surround the band. At one point, acclaimed director
Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”) had beat out Bar-Lev
to make the movie. However, Bar-Lev said he later learned Van
Sant bowed out. That left Bar-Lev as the only willing director to
take it on.
Bar-Lev didn’t just roll with the band’s quirks, but also
convinced his investors to go beyond the 50th anniversary plans,
and make a movie that was hours longer.
After four years making the movie (three of them just editing),
he premiered “Long Strange Trip” at the 2017 Sundance Film
Festival in its final 4-hour form. Amazon Studios acquired it and
has made it into a six-part documentary (currently available on
Prime) that masterfully traces the life of this complex band that
was birthed during the LSD craze of the mid 1960s, and by the
1980s was worshiped by millions.
Pulling the rug from under the audience
A highlight of this deep dive into the Dead is the treasure trove
of things Bar-Lev and his team kept coming across while making
“We found never-before-seen footage and photos and audio
recordings in people’s attics and storage lockers,” he said. “We
had a vast network of people looking for this stuff.”
Over the years, as Bar-Lev kept convincing the producers that the
movie could be longer, it gave him the ability to delve into
aspects of the Dead that wouldn’t have worked in a 90-minute
documentary. One example is looking at the loyal roadies tasked
to build and break down the “Wall of Sound” every show
during the band’s 1974 tour. The footage and interviews of the
massive construction, which at the time was the largest concert
sound system ever built, is a remarkable sight for newbies to the
band — and a wicked acid flashback for the Dead Heads who were
The length of time it took to complete the movie also gave
Bar-Lev the ability to convince notoriously camera shy Grateful
Dead songwriter Robert Hunter to go on camera. But instead of
attempting to give Grateful Dead fans a glimpse inside the man
responsible for the lyrics to some of the band’s most famous
songs, Bar-Lev used the opportunity to show the audience that
this is a different kind of rock band movie.
“I realized there wasn’t much I really wanted him to answer,”
Bar-Lev said of talking to Hunter. “So I asked him a question I
knew he hates to answer which was what’s the song ‘Dark Star‘ mean? And he did exactly what I
hoped he would do, it provoked his ire and he answered in a very
funny way and then basically kicked me out of his dressing room.”
The method to Bar-Lev’s madness here was that he thought there
were some things about the Dead that should never be explored,
because if they were a part of the beloved mystique of the band
would be lost forever.
“The question at the heart of the Grateful Dead is what does it
all mean? That should never be answered, because once it’s gone
the magic is gone,” Bar-Lev said. “So we tried to make a point of
that when interviewing Hunter. By exactly putting the wrong
question to the wrong person.”
What sets the movie apart from most documentaries about rock
bands is that “Long Strange Trip” is as unconventional as its
subject. Though Bar-Lev tracked down the existing band members
for interviews, along with a slew of others who were in their
orbit through the decades, the movie is filled with Easter Eggs
for the most obsessed Dead Head, jump cuts in the story’s
timeline, and appearances by the Frankenstein monster.
This last one is probably Bar-Lev’s most radical storytelling
device. Using masterful editing, the iconic horror figure that
Jerry Garcia loved as a child is highlighted throughout the movie
for major moments in the band’s existence.
“The appearance of the Frankenstein monster changes over the
period of the film,” Bar-Lev explained.
“The first time he shows up Jerry is terrified of the monster,”
Bar-Lev said (and as we learn in a Garcia interview Bar-Lev’s
team uncovered that was done before his death in 1995). In the
interview, Garcia said one of his all-time favorite movies as a
kid was the classic comedy/horror “Abbott and Costello Meet
Frankenstein.” At that point he was scared of the monster.
“The second time he shows up Jerry identifies with the monster,”
Bar-Lev said. In the doc, Bar-Lev uses footage from 1931’s
“Frankenstein” — of the monster
smoking and playing a violin — to mirror Garcia forming the band.
“The third time he shows up it’s when Jerry’s daughter says that
the fandom around the Grateful Dead has become too much for
Jerry, and now he identifies with Doctor Frankenstein.” We then
see “Frankenstein” footage of the doctor looking exhausted as the
monster can no longer be controlled.
“The audience might not know it, but ‘Frankenstein’ is charting
our progress,” Bar-Lev said. “Every time the monster shows up the
audience achieves another milestone in the greater understanding
of the movie.”
That’s what Bar-Lev hopes audiences get from watching “Long
“If I’ve succeeded then you get to the end of the movie and you
don’t just have any more questions about why people love the
Grateful Dead, you’re not even interested in the question
anymore, “ Bar-Lev said. “My greatest hope is for the time you’re
watching it you’re participating in a Grateful Dead story.”