- 'PLAYING IN THE BAND': Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir appear in Scorsese's "Long Strange Trip," which will be available on Amazon Video Friday, June 2.
It's a high time for Deadheads. Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the band's canonical May 1977 tour, Grateful Dead fans are rolling loose change to buy the band's new cash-out deluxe box set from that very tour, reading the recently released book dealing exclusively with the legendary '77 show at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., rooting up lawn tickets for the Dead & Company's summer tour that launched this weekend, witnessing to potential converts with the spate of recent Dead articles (Jesse Jarnow's "user's guide" on Pitchfork is great), and probably most of all, finally seeing the 14-years-in-the-making, Martin Scorsese-produced "Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead." So far, the documentary has a perfect track record of reviews in advance of its June 2 release on Amazon Prime, and it's well deserved.
With the band's legacy in the middle of a major cultural reintroduction, "Long Strange Trip" marks a high point in the Dead's revival. To the relief of fans, the movie nails its lofty ambitions. For the curious, it provides a definitive — if incomplete — primer on the band. It may not offer many new revelations for the more seasoned folks, but it's still fulfilling: a masterfully managed, psychedelic vibes-evoking classical documentary about the band and how its rambling metaphor for America reflected and unraveled right alongside it.
Director Amir Bar-Lev (a Little Rock Film Festival alum whose documentary on Penn State and Jerry Sandusky, "Happy Valley," opened the 2014 festival) makes the most of the intimidating four-hour running time. He leans into the captive Deadhead audience by playing into its ability to (ahem) bear with wandering sprawl and loopy discursion. I suspect this documentary is also Bar-Lev with gold in his eyes, dropping his thesis while the epic-documentary movement builds steam — remember that the nonfiction high points of this year's Academy Awards included the eight-hour "OJ: Made in America" and a lifetime achievement award for long-cinema genius Frederick Wiseman.
While the film's skeleton is a tender, aged archival interview with Jerry Garcia from the early '90s, its lifeblood is in new, beautifully shot interviews with surviving band members, aging and eccentric as ever (hilariously, Bob Weir drives a Tesla with a Batmobile interior and Mickey Hart is inventing a stringed percussion instrument that can make you travel through time or something). Its never-before-seen archival footage is copious and stunning: a clip of the endearingly gawky Phil Lesh and an eager-to-please 22-year old Weir in full puppy mode rehearsing three-part harmony on "Candyman" at the feet of Jerry Garcia is pure warmth.
The storytelling highlights of the film, however, belong to members of the Grateful Dead family you're least likely see on T-shirts. Prickly lyricist Robert Hunter gets the loudest laugh of the whole thing during a minute of access that shocked even the band; famed roadie and Dead memoirist Steve Parish doses the punch throughout with his acerbic, no-bullshit stoner exclamations; and the denouement of Garcia's long decline, told by his lifetime love interest Brigid Meier, is as chilling and heartbreaking as anything you'll see this year.
As bassist Phil Lesh said just last week about the film, "It's great as far as it goes, but it's not the whole story." Sure, it's easy to be chafed by some of the film's major oversights. Lots are. For one, where the hell is Betty Cantor-Jackson, their sound engineer and woman standing straight in a machismo-tornado, whose tireless work and golden ear are most responsible for the Dead's recorded legacy? Even if "Long Strange Trip" can't cover all of Jerry's ex-wives and the parade of keyboardists who died prematurely, the film is a highly recommended, immersive entree into the expansive universe of America's greatest band (especially when enjoyed over two nights at home instead of one marathon, butt-numbing night in the theater). It's a high point of Dead chronicling and sure to be an enduring document of the band and its culture.