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 Long Strange Trip (The Untold Story Of The Grateful Dead), which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
There’s been a perceptible shift recently towards a widespread normalization of the Dead for the indie rock squares who might’ve turned their noses up at the band a decade ago. First there was the "Fare Thee Well" concerts two years ago at Soldier Field, then last year there was the Day of the Dead tribute album which managed to fill five CDs with covers by everyone from Kurt Vile and Stephen Malkmus to Courtney Barnett and Lee Ranaldo, to name a sliver of the contributors. Just the other week an archival set recorded at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, dubbed “The Holy Grail of Dead shows” on the packaging, was officially (finally!) loosed from the vaults and unanimously foisted up as one of the highest watermarks of live Dead experiences. Along with that (although technically unrelated) comes the release of a new documentary, Long Strange Trip (The Untold Story Of The Grateful Dead), which clocks in at just under four hours(!) and paints about as clear a picture as you’re likely to get of this complicated band.
The Grateful Dead are perhaps the easiest going “difficult” band ever, with a long tail of recorded output to process, an unsavory fan base made up of the willfully unwashed masses, and meandering improvised songs that seem designed to try the patience of anyone who hasn’t already turned on, tuned in, and/or dropped out. In reality, though, Amir Bar-Lev’s film makes a damn good argument that they were one of the most truly American bands ever, almost systematically demystifying every obstacle standing in the way of a Grateful Dead skeptic testing the waters. They have roots firmly planted in jazz and bluegrass, with poetic sensibilities snatched from hitch-hiking beat poets. Even their San Francisco stomping ground, a fabled destination of the westward migration, has a certain red-white-and-blue-all-over air to it. They might not follow directly on a straight line from baseball and apple pie, but start at medicine shows and tent revivals and you’re only a few steps away.
Broken into six manageable chapters, Long Strange Trip touches on everything from the fanatic fans who have bootlegged and obsessively cataloged thousands of shows to the insane crew of roadies and the comically large “Wall of Sound” speaker setup, but the least expected element in the Grateful Dead mythology presented here is... Frankenstein? Universal monster movies had as much an effect on guitarist Jerry Garcia as Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, it turns out. Psychedelics, as you would expect, can be found at the core of the band’s DNA notably coming into vogue at the same time, but the other constant thread to be found are well-timed clips of Boris Karloff with bolts protruding from his neck, or snippets from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, all building to an out-of-nowhere emotional kicker in Part Six that I won’t spoil here.
Maybe I’m cynical, but in this moment of reappraisal that the Grateful Dead find themselves in, I think it’s pretty crazy that the film manages to present the journey all these musicians have been on for the past fifty years in a surprisingly warts-and-all way. The access that the filmmakers have been given is incredible, with scads of archival footage and unguarded interviews galore, but less proud moments get a proper airing out as well. The band was embarrassingly shitty with money in the early years, and they made some bad calls hanging out as much as they did with the he man woman hating Hell’s Angels. They lost friends and fellow band members along the way, with such far-ranging and non-stop touring taking on the personal lives of everyone. The group felt a responsibility for the people in their entourage of employees that pushed them over the breaking point of exhaustion. By the ‘90s they were in the unenviable, and hypocritical, position of having to police the droves of spaced out hippies who were flooding the stadium lots in search of a miracle ticket. It was a bad scene by then, for everyone, and no one tries to rewrite that as the gospel truth. Garcia’s death at the age of 53, though, is the ultimate tragedy in this story, and it marks the end of the band so far as the film seems to be concerned.
It’s totally understandable that lots of folks are never gonna get into the Grateful Dead, and if you’re in that camp there’s probably nothing this film is gonna do to change your mind about that. That said, you’re on this site because you presumably like music, so for you, this is gonna be required viewing. Love them or hate them the story of the Dead is fascinating and it’s told here with style, heart, and an appropriately mischievous sense of humor. Even at four hours this thing never drags for a minute and, like any great show the Dead put on, left me wanting an encore.
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.