The Grateful Dead perform a concert in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 1994. The Grateful Dead perform a concert in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 1994. The Grateful Dead perform a concert in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 1994. (Photo: Northfoto / Shutterstock)

New film takes viewers on a ‘Long Strange Trip’ into world of Grateful Dead

The documentary, which will be available to stream on Amazon, is not just for dedicated Deadheads.

In its three decades of iconoclastic, drug-fueled existence, the Grateful Dead made an indelible impression on music and the culture at large. Refusing to play by the rules, the psychedelic jam band created music that attracted a peripatetic tribe of loyal Deadheads, whose devotion remains undying long after the 1995 death of frontman Jerry Garcia. The new documentary “Long Strange Trip” – its title comes from the song “Truckin’” – examines the creative process, contextual history and dysfunctional family dynamics that made the Dead a phenomenon.

We caught up with the film's director, Amir Bar-Lev, to get the scoop on the musical movie.

So what's the basic gist and where can I see it?

Filmmaker Bar-Lev blends concert and behind-the-scenes footage, more than a thousand photographs, and new and archival interviews with the Bay Area-based band, their crew, family members and Deadheads in the four-hour documentary that opens in select cities May 26 and premieres on Amazon Prime Video June 2.

Who's this Bar-Lev guy anyway?

Bar-Lev – the director of such films as “The Tillman Story,” “My Kid Could Paint That,” “Happy Valley” and “The Fighter” – grew up in Berkeley, California. He first saw the Dead live at the Greek Theatre there in 1986 and has been a fan since he was 13. He says the experience changed his life.

Why the Grateful Dead?

“The Grateful Dead are a great rock band but they’re also a fascinating cultural phenomenon. There’s a lot of substance [behind the hedonism]. That’s what rock and roll can be, and was for me," Bar-Lev told From The Grapevine. "They never engaged in the kind of showbiz posturing that other rock bands did. When you saw a Dead show, you felt like you were seeing music being made rather than watching a crafted stage show. They fed off the audience’s energy and we fed off them. They were truly improvising and finding and renewing the music every time.”

How long did it take to make the documentary?

Jerry Garcia (left) and Bob Weir practice their jams in 1977.Jerry Garcia (left) and Bob Weir practice their jams in 1977. (Photo: Peter Simon/Amazon Prime Video)

Bar-Lev had the idea for the film in 2003, but it took 11 years to convince the band to let him make it. He didn’t anticipate what a massive undertaking it would be. “I didn’t know how much amazing material they had in their vault,” he said, noting that he worked on it for four years.

“We compiled every interview they’ve ever done. We made a database of every concert that was ever filmed. Then we reached out to fans to solicit home movies of the road trips that they took that have tremendous historical value.” And he conducted 17 new interviews that shed light on Dead history, sometimes from widely differing perspectives. The result is “not just long, it’s deep,” explained Bar-Lev.

Is the film just for Deadheads?

Deadheads attend a concert at an outdoor venue in the late-1980s.Deadheads attend a concert at an outdoor venue in the late 1980s. (Photo: Michael Conway/Photo courtesy of Amazon)

“I’ve been really gratified to see that while fans are getting a lot out of the film, non-fans are getting a little bit more because the story is new to them,” he points out. “It has a great story, it has terrific characters in it, there’s a lot of humor, some sadness. You don’t have to be a Deadhead to appreciate this movie.”

What's next for the director?

Could Bar-Lev's next film be about Israeli author and Ted Talk phenom Yuval Harari?Could Bar-Lev's next film be about Israeli author and Ted Talk phenom Yuval Harari? (Photo: Facebook)

Bar-Lev, whose father was born in Israel, is looking forward to going back to the country soon to show the documentary at a film festival in the coastal Mediterranean city of Haifa. He doesn’t have his next project lined up yet, but is thinking about making a documentary based on the books of Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari, the author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," a book recommended by everyone from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg.

Any final thoughts?

Bar-Lev hopes those who see “Long Strange Trip” will come away with an understanding of people behind the Grateful Dead. “We’re used to rock stars being in love with the attention they get. This was a band that got a lot of attention and had some misgivings about it. I think it’s refreshing in an era of self-regard to see guys who were immensely talented but retained a sense of humility, integrity and a partnership with their audience,” he says. “There are a lot of lessons in there that are much bigger than rock and roll.”


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