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May 24, 2017 - 10:51am
Bit of an over the top article on the new dead doc, with way too many big words...and i take issue with the comment about the lyric being consumed with death and dread, and no love songs. They did have songs of death and regret...but so much more...including some very good love songs.
The Dead: Smothered by Love
Amir Bar-Lev’s ‘Long Strange Trip’ tells how a group for whom stardom seemed anathema got swallowed up by it.
May 22, 2017 6:18 p.m. ET
There aren’t many acts in American music that warrant a four-hour, flashbacking, less-than-linear biopic, especially one as wry, ironic and sad as “Long Strange Trip.” But Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary on the Grateful Dead is an epic, and one that should not be dismissed by eye-rolling millennials as just another reverie about someone else’s youth, or another solemn bout of baby boomer navel-gazing. Yes, the film harks back to the ’60s. Whether it’s the 1960s or 1860s is an open question.
Fanaticism, the source of “fan,” is as American as apple pie; from the Civil War to the Vietnam era, and all the untidy moments in between, Americans have always been vulnerable to spiritual, social, political and even musical obsessions. And weird fixations. And dubious causes. The fundamentalist impulse is almost a default mechanism. Anyone familiar with the Know-Nothing Party, early 20th-century Pentecostalism, the Temperance Movement or the late-20th-century Deadhead is familiar with the American capacity for unblinking, militant belief.
The Grateful Dead fans’ worldview won’t be undermined by Mr. Bar-Lev. Far from it. The history is well told. The music is occasionally sublime. The interviews are insightful and, now and then, unnerving: The demise of Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995 at age 53, is told in stark, depressing detail. Mr. Bar-Lev is certainly a fan but has enough distance to separate the musicians and their music—an amalgam of folk, rock, bluegrass, ragas, ragtime, country and the kind of old blues recordings made by men who may actually have been insane—from the movement of fanatics who followed them around for years on end. His approach mirrors, without apery or mockery, the free-form aesthetic the Dead tried to capture on stage on so many nights, and he creates a sincere tribute to a group for whom the whole idea of celebrity/immortality once seemed anathema. And who got swallowed up by stardom just the same.
Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia in 1977 Photo: Peter Simon/Amazon
As such a case study in incongruity, the Dead story makes a good subject for Mr. Bar-Lev, who has produced several other very thoughtful documentaries that make profound statements, sometimes sideways: “The Tillman Story” (2010), for instance, was about the friendly-fire death of the patriotic Pat Tillman and the paradoxical aspects of that case; “Happy Valley” (2014) was about Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky, but also confronted the moral blindness of Penn State football fans.
These films are about hypocrisy, in a certain sense. But they’re more about the incompatibility of reality with certain deeply held beliefs. And how, for the faithful, it never really matters.
What did Deadheads believe about the Grateful Dead? That the rambling jams the band embarked on, night after night, were close to holy; that the followers and the followed were all in it together; that the Dead were the world’s greatest band, never mind that none of them could really sing and their playing was wildly erratic. (It should be said that Jerry Garcia, the bearded, charismatic lead guitarist and centerpiece, had a warmly distinctive voice, and that “erratic” was part of the brand.) How the band saw their fans and their fame—and how they should sensibly be seen—is something Mr. Bar-Lev makes uncharacteristically obvious in his use of clips from “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948), favorites of Garcia’s. Yes, “Long Strange Trip”—which begins a limited theatrical release Friday and will be available on Amazon Prime on June 2—is a monster movie. The first line of the film, in fact, is from Boris Karloff, as Frankenstein’s unhappy Monster (and muttering, “I love dead…”).
You laugh, but “Long Strange Trip” is much more tragedy than it is comedy. Over the band’s 35-year history, four of its keyboard players died prematurely; one, Vince Welnick, cut his own throat. As critic Nick Paumgarten of the New Yorker notes in the film, there was a subtext of death and dread in much of Garcia’s work, specifically the stuff written with lyricist Robert Hunter. The Dead did not sing love songs. The topics were often a little gothic, a little mad, a little evocative of Thomas Hart Benton, or Appalachian gothic, or Philip Roth’s indigenous American berserk.
Donna Jean Godchaux, Jerry Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann in 1978 Photo: Adrian Boot/Amazon Prime Video
The creator most painfully consumed by the monster was Garcia. Reportedly, Mr. Bar-Lev was encouraged by the surviving band members (who continue to perform in various incarnations) to include more about the post-Jerry band. But the movie becomes more and more focused on Garcia, whose presence on stage late in the game—his once-piratical black beard almost luminously white, his skin ashen, his posture crumbling—is like a nightlight during a ghost story, a story about an otherworldly brand of fame that couldn’t be outrun and which smothered the group artistically. Smothered it, in fact, with love.
It wasn’t as if they didn’t push their music forward, night after night. They did. It just didn’t matter: The Dead, for its fans, had moved beyond criticism and Garcia, perhaps alone, seems to have fully known this. As the film explains, he really wanted to reduce his touring obligations in the early ’90s. But he was too central to an operation with an extensive payroll; he had too many people dependent on him to stop. So he waited to be stopped. And he was.