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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir, which is streaming over on Netflix.
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was not hip to be a fan of the Grateful Dead. For pretty much their entire decades-long lifespan, they were seen as the pied pipers of stoner dads, hippie burnouts, and sunshine daydreamers. After years of a changing tide, 2016 has seen a somewhat unexpected reassessment of their massive body of work in the form of Pitchfork deep-dives and Day Of The Dead, a 5CD / 10LP box set of covers by indie rock luminaries. Their history is knotty, with dramatic personnel and genre shifts over the decades, and their back catalog can still feel like a moving stream if you’re looking for a place to dip your toe in. With that in mind, this week we’re taking a look at The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir which puts a spotlight on the Dead’s co-founding rhythm guitarist and songwriter, Bob Weir.
Lots of documentaries out there attempt to trace the holistic history of either a group or an individual, but The Other One takes the unique path of focusing in on one cog in the larger machine of a group, rhythm guitarist Weir in this case, to the general exclusion of other members. I can think of lots of other bands that this approach would be fine with, but the Grateful Dead were a cohesive unit that locked in with each other musically on stage. To break one part of that puzzle out is an unexpected way to approach the band from. There’s a certain irony in being informed late in a doc about one member of the Dead that Jerry Garcia’s ascendancy as the face of the band in the late 80's created tension for everyone else. On the other hand, the Dead’s history spans three decades from their start as the Warlocks up to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 and would be way too much to squeeze into a single two-hour film, so there’s definitely a benefit of limiting the scope and Weir's got a strong enough personality to hang everything on.
All of the members of the Grateful Dead surely led memorably crazy lives surrounded by sex and drugs and rock and roll but, to hear everyone tell it, Weir was the central focus of the insanity. In the pre-psychedelic San Francisco '60s, he co-founded the Warlocks when he was 16 and pretty much never looked back. So when he says "I've seen stuff that no one’s seen," in a tone that sounds almost humbled by the burden that implies, you definitely believe him. You’re promised a “...long strange trip” right there in the title, and Weir’s life more than delivers the goods on that order. This is the group folks in the know referred to as "Beautiful Bobby surrounded by the ugly brothers" after all. Tapped into the counterculture zeitgeist like they were, there’s no end to the Zelig-like stories you could wring from Weir. Neither Woodstock nor Altamont come up, and you don’t even miss em since there’s no shortage of other crazy reminiscences to recount.
Woodstock and Altamont though, were epic bummers for the band and would have brought down the positive vibes of the film, which is why they’re probably left out of the conversation (Woodstock was a technical nightmare and we covered the cultural nightmare of Altamont a couple of weeks back in this very column). The only places here where bummers are allowed is discussing the deaths of Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and Jerry Garcia, the latter of which Weir thought of as the big brother he never had. There’s so much hippie optimism here that even one-time Weir roommate and legendary Merry Prankster beat poet Neal Cassady’s death ends up framed by a sort of beyond-the-grave phantasmagoric optimism. The overall result is a story that loses some nuance in its preference for the almost unrelentingly bright take on Weir’s charmed life, but perhaps I’m being too cynical for my own good with this take.
In digging down into the life of Weir, the filmmakers turn up some really interesting narrative threads that have nothing to do with the music itself. Given up for adoption at a very young age, there’s a sincere warmth to the subplot that bubbles throughout following Weir’s journey to discover his birth parents. The bits where we get to see Weir hanging out with his own family while they awkwardly wander through the old house the Dead used to live in on Haight Street (now owned and nicely furnished by someone nice enough to let strangers roam free, apparently) is such a comforting counterpoint to the stories of debauchery on the road. I mean, sure... he did meet the mother of his children on tour when she was fifteen years old, but they seem to be making it work and she clearly dotes on him. Even though I’d love to see films of this depth aimed at the other surviving band members, it’s difficult to think their family units would be as rewarding to spend this much time with.
Just last month Weir solidified his place as the most resilient member of the Grateful Dead by going out on a nine date “Campfire Tour” backed by the National in support of a new album of “cowboy songs” Blue Mountain. He might not have been the most talented of the bunch, the most electrifying, inspiring, or polarizing, but he’s still out there making it happen in ways that are resonating across generations. Even though The Other One fails to really tap into the magic that made the band tick or tell anything even resembling the full story of the group, it absolutely highlights the good natured guy who simply loved playing music with his friends.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.