SXSW interview: ‘Long Strange Trip’ director Amir Bar-Lev wants to ‘make America Grateful again’

Did you know a young Jerry Garcia was fascinated with the story of “Frankenstein”? Did you know that a trip to the Watts Towers inspired an epiphany in the musician, leading him to realize that he was not concerned with creating something that would stand the test of time, a static memorial to his talent. Garcia wanted to be a part of something live. He wanted to create. He wanted to be present.

Those are just a few of the intriguing and revelatory pieces of the Grateful Dead puzzle examined by “Long Strange Trip,” Amir Bar-Lev’s mesmerizing documentary that screened on opening night of South by Southwest. The four-hour documentary (don’t be intimidated, it flies by) screens again at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Alamo Ritz.

A Berkeley native and fan of the Dead since the age of 13, Bar-Lev first reached out to the Dead about making the film in 2003. His dedication to the project is evident in a film that eschews exhaustive paint-by-number beats or salacious “Behind the Music” details. Yes, the film starts with early childhood footage of Garcia and extends through the end of his life, but, Bar-Lev was not concerned with capturing every detail of each epoch of the band that existed for 30 years with Garcia at the helm. Instead, the movie captures the band’s essence, how their music was truly a communal artistic effort and a living organism.

Garcia is revealed as a reluctant captain, more concerned with being a part of a whole (while having a damn good time) than a leader of the band. Stories from roadies, band members and extended Dead family members, along with incredible unseen behind-the-scenes and live footage, capture the uniqueness of a tribe that refused to conform to industry norms or create any sort of artifice that would come between the individual musicians or the band and its fans.

The long movie is broken into six distinct parts, touching on Garcia’s well documented history of drug addiction, the complications of the band’s increased popularity in the 80s and the unique community that grew an unwieldy size by the early 90s, but at its heart, “Long Strange Trip” is a celebration of the spirit that infused the band from its outset, an effervescent exploration of the collective unconscious that began in a period of political and social unrest in America and one that still bubbles at the surface of our troubled times today.

I caught up with Bar-Lev over the weekend to discuss his relationship with the band, his intention with the movie and what we could all learn today from the band of Merry Pranksters that first came together in San Francisco in 1965.

How did you come to the Grateful Dead and what was your relationship with them as a band?

“Being into the Grateful Dead on the one hand was about being into great music. But there was another component to it, which is it was an oasis where you felt you were getting an honest shake as a fan. You didn’t feel like you were getting performed at. You felt like the guys at the center of it had a certain amount of humility, which even then I think was pretty remarkable and now, with the way things have gotten, is really remarkable. I think there is a relevance to what they were about, to the inclusivity they had. The Grateful Dead never put a wall around what being a Deadhead was about, what the band was about and I think there’s something there for people today. I think also there was an invitation to participate and to be present that is sorely lacking in say concerts today, when everybody is thinking about what kind of Instagram event it is going to be for them.

Taking the wall metaphor a step further. Not only did they not build a wall around themselves, the wall the Grateful Dead had was the Wall of Sound behind  them (an otherworldly PA system that revolutionized the concert experience) that connected them to their fans.

The Grateful Dead for as long as they could put every dime into their relationship with their fans and into connecting with their fans and trying to make it a connected, authentic experience, which is what they had at their genesis with the Acid Tests. As they describe it, the thing that was great about that is that they weren’t the center of attention. In a bunch of different ways they invited their fans not only to participate but to take a sense of ownership the community.

When I saw the running time was near four hours, I was concerned about staying focused and invested in the film for its entirety. But it really grabs you at the beginning and pulls you in and it flies by.

You don’t have to be a fan or to like the music to find it an interesting story. And many people involved in making the film are not fans, and that’s by design because I wanted to tell what I think is a really interesting story. One of my pieces of direction early on was that this should be a punk treatment and not a hippie treatment. Those are sortof silly categories, but the point I was trying to make is that we wanted to burnish what is subversive about the Grateful Dead. Because we feel the Grateful Dead has been loved to death, as somebody says in the film. And rock-and-roll in general has been co-opted by acceptance. When big bands are co-opted by big business interests is the mainstream culture. So rock and roll ceases to provoke questions and make people think about how important art is. All the things that rock and roll can do diminishes as it becomes  more just a piece of the cultural brand apparatus. And in my own little way, making a film about a band about the Grateful Dead is a great opportunity. It’s a Trojan Horse. Because the gates are open and people think rock and roll is safe and Jerry Garcia is an ice cream and a Santa Claus and all these things, they don’t see the fact that this band is a threat to the statu quo.  

It seems like the Grateful Dead would be great to have around in that incarnation today.

I agree. I totally think that.

It’s amazing to think that a front man could talk so little to the crowd and that he could be that messianic of a figure. Which I think speaks to his virtuosity as a musician.

But also it speaks to his character. Yes, it does speak to his virtuosity as a musician, that he didn’t have to adorn it with presentation and showmanship. I think he had a healthy suspicion of his own charisma and a healthy skepticism around adulaiton. I think Jerry on some level understood that it would be a mistake to try and take too much credit for what everybody was co-creating in the Grateful Dead experience. Ironically, that just made people admire him even more. But, you said it, in a day and age where everybody considers themselves a mini celebrity because of their megaphone they have on social media, I think it’s something the culture could use a little more of, that kind of humility.

Jerry Garcia would not be on Twitter.

No, he wouldn’t.

In a world today where rock music, and music in general is so egocentric, the Grateful Dead were the complete opposite in that they were about ego death. And there is music that does seem to try and bring people together in that way now, but it’s not rock music.

I don’t know where egolessness is going to pop up next. There was DJ culture, and that was really neat because suddenly there wasn’t a stage. And back in the 90s, when raves were happening there was something really cool in that we were all turning toward one another at a dance party instead of all facing one place. But I think it’s hard for human beings to keep that up because suddenly the DJ became a rock star. What a horrible turn of events.

There’s a sadness looming over a story like this because you know the heroin is lurking. You know he dies. And it seems that in the same way the Grateful Dead were concerned, especially with “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” of going out and finding America and telling the story of America, the story of the band kind of ends up becoming an American tragedy in terms of Garcia having to shoulder the burden of celebrity and hero-worship, in a role he never really asked for.

All of that is true, but I don’t think of this story as a tragedy. I think that the unexpected challenges that came in the 90s were handled with the same Taoist sensibility that all the other decisions and challenges were handled all the way through. In some hypothetical world, there is a Jerry Garcia who steers the ship of the Grateful Dead with much more deliberation. But that’s not the reality of Jerry Garcia. One of my favorite lines in the film is where Jerry tells somebody, ‘Don’t try to do anything with the Grateful Dead.’ I think that is so brilliant. I actually wanted to name the film that — ‘Don’t Do Anything with the Grateful Dead,’ because that is the essence of it. The reason that thing is still in our culture today and is as pervasive as it is is because it welcomed everybody and asked everybody to take responsibility for steering the ship collectively, and some got that and some didn’t.

Who, if anyone, did you not get for the film, or who did you get more from than you expected? Why no Bill Walton, why so much Donna Jean Godchaux, who admittedly gives lots of great context?

I was doing ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ not ‘The History of World War II.’ I was trying to get a good story, and I wasn’t trying to get the proportions correct. If I’m doing the Grateful Dead as the Wikipedia entry, I should have spent a lot more time in the late 70s and Bill Walton would have been in there. There’s a million things that would have changed, but I was really trying to keep my eye on telling a good story in a cinematic convention and so I went where the editing wanted to go. I’m sure Bill Walton would have been a great interview. I had three Deadheads in the film and they kind of covered all the bases.

What did you learn about the band in making this film?

I hadn’t real understood how radically pluralistic the vision was from the outset. When I started to see that the band itself was comprised of Deadheads, then the outer circles of the people they worked with were Deadheads, in the widest sense, Deadheads were asked to take responsibility for what the Grateful Dead were going to be, I understood the Grateful Dead project in a really different way. I understood that it really was truly The American Band, because they weren’t trying to elect a king, they were trying to have a democracy.

And, then, what did you learn about yourself as an artist via the Grateful Dead in making it?

I’m trying to make art more like the Grateful Dead made art and it has to do with engaging with voices that are seemingly in opposition to my own. That is what I’ve tried to do as an artist is be part of a collective and to bring people around me and make art with people who have a totally different approach to making art. And it worked with this film.

And now seems to be a pretty important time to be doing that …

I think everything is political and I think the notion that the Grateful Dead were apolitical is totally misguided. They were trying to embody a message with everything they did, instead of just espousing a certain creed. And that’s what gave it it’s lasting power, I think.  And you can’t divorce what they were about from the moment that we’re in right now, which is that we’ve elected a guy who shows me how insanely narcissistic our culture has gotten. So that’s why I put into the final act of the film, when things are seemingly dissolving, I put a snippet of acid test audio, where somebody says, ‘The acid test is everywhere now. You’re  all part of the acid test wherever you are.’ Because I have an ulterior motive that I want that egolessness to get more into the bloodstream of our culture. I would like to make America Grateful again.

“Long Strange Trip” screens again at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Alamo Ritz and will be available on Amazon Prime Video on May 26. 

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