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Long Strange Trip – Grateful Dead doc review

May 2nd, 2017 · 16 Comments · Grateful Dead, Movies

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Let There Be Songs To Fill The Screen

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I remember when I first saw the long-in-the-works Beat Generation documentary “The Source” at its premiere in Manhattan with McClure, Amram and all these other luminaries and we all went to the afterparty at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and everybody was freaking out that finally a serious long-form Beat documentary got made!

Well, that night just repeated itself 15 years later in Toronto — at the International Premiere of the definitive Grateful Dead doc “Long Strange Trip.”

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The director Amir Bar-Lev (above) and his extended crew have been working on this for the last 14 years  (!)

Martin Scorsese executive produced.  Trixie Garcia and filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann were very involved, as were all the living band members.  And it includes basically all the “lost” / home-movie footage that’s ever been found.

This was only the sixth theater where it was shown on a big screen — and will be again in a nationwide one-off on May 25th which I highly recommend any Deadhead make the point of seeing if it’s in your town.

It’ll be streaming on Amazon Prime starting June 2nd — the same happy day I’m headlining at The Beat Museum in San Francisco.  Amazon Prime is a Netflix kinda thing, that they told me is $80 a year, and has all this original programming plus expedited shipping on everything you buy from Amazon.  If you don’t see it in a theater on May 25th, or in screenings in NYC & LA that weekend, your only way to see it is with this online subscription.  There’s no DVD release planned at this point.

And just to get back to the Beat thing — this epic opus opens and closes with Jack Kerouac  (!)

“Say what?!”

Not to give anything away — as the director joked, “don’t tell anyone, but the hero dies in the end” — but the last quote in the movie, Garcia’s sign-off moment, he says something like, “Kerouac broke open the doors for me — and I hope the Grateful Dead have been able to do that for other people.”

This is what I’m on about.

Here’s these filmmakers spending 14 years making this tremendous love-filled soulful take on the Dead — recognizing and making prevalent Jerry’s deep connection to Jack Kerouac.  And they even found an early photo of Robert Hunter in a plaid shirt that you would swear was Jack himself!

As I write in my book, the very last question Jerry was ever asked on camera, in an interview for the Silicon Valley Historical Society, was about Neal Cassady.  And he riffs rhapsodic — “I got to be good friends with him.  He was one of those guys that truly was a very special person.  In my life, psychedelics and Neal Cassady are almost equal in terms of influence on me.  

“Neal was his own art.  He wasn’t a musician, he was a ‘Neal Cassady.’  He was a set of one.  And he was it.  He was the whole thing — top, bottom, beginning, end, everything.  And people knew it.  And people would be drawn to it.  He was an unbelievable human being— the energy that he had, and the vocabulary he had of gestures and expressions — oh boy he was funny.  Phew!  I really loved him,” were the last words Jerry Garcia ever said on camera.

And now here — his very last line in the definitive Grateful Dead documentary — is him citing Kerouac as “breaking open the doors.”

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Besides that — which is really the whole puckin key as far as I’m concerned . . .  😀 

Deadheads Unite!

This is gonna blow your mind!

The first two hours cover basically up until the ’75 hiatus … and then there’s a nice “set break” before another two hours of basically ’76 till ’95.

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This was made in complete collaboration with David Lemieux (above, post screening) the Canadian Deadhead who took over from Dick Latvala as the Dead’s official audio/visual archivist.  Besides all the extended family members’ cooperation and inside insights, it was also made with a non-Deadhead editor & other key krewe who helped keep the perspective from being too insider.

One of the first comments in the Q&A with the director afterwards was a Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival regular saying he was not into the Dead at all but was blown away by the doc.  Several of the advance reviews in places like Variety and Vanity Fair were written by non-Deadheads who stated the same, and were similarly blown away.

Also in the post-screening talk, Amir said how part of the film’s motivation was as sort-of “marriage therapy” — that this was for people who “got it” who needed to explain it to their loved one who didn’t.  🙂

And they achieved their objective.

I sure wish my Mom was alive to see this.

Oh, and another thing — it focuses on the music!  It makes me wanna puke whenever I hear “music people” dismiss the music this band made.

It was formed by — and was a practicing amalgam of — a bluegrass player (Jerry), a blues singer (Pigpen), a jazz & classical composer/player (Phil), an R&B drummer (Bill), and an alt-folkie (Bob).

Then add in that they were born out of Ken Kesey’s acid tests, and had Neal Cassady as their driving headlight, and you’ve got an engine that’s a Bus that’s a circus that’s a movement that’s done nothing but grow till this day.  And it’ll be bigger tomorrow.  (Especially once more people see this! 🙂 ) 

There’s a lot of time devoted to the whole musical progression from their flukey formation and manic morphing —> the studio world, then the learned dedicated focus that produced the Workingman’s Dead / American Beauty masterpieces, and how it all played out from there.

I (and others in the theater) were brought to tears more than once — including the Morning Dew story from the climax of the Europe ’72 tour, and the writing and playing of The Days Between that Dennis McNally rightly calls “the last Garcia-Hunter masterpiece.”  Heavy stuff.

Then there were tons of seat-shaking rounds of laughter, including Hunter explaining the lyrics to Dark Star; the very British Sam Cutler’s various takes on things (one of them, roughly, “In America, people actually go ‘in search of America.’ No one in England goes ‘in search of England.'”); Warner Brothers’ Joe Smith explaining how he never “got it;” Al “Althea” Franken explaining how he did; and Deadheads goofing on clueless local reporters who showed up trying to ‘get the story.’

Something else that’s extraordinary and I appreciated was the storytelling.  The filmmaker spoke of it in the Q&A when asked about why some person or moment in their history wasn’t dealt with, then he and I talked about it afterwards.  It’s all about the storytelling, man — what you leave out, what you put in, how you arc, how you work themes and build suspense and pace mood.  A hundred different directors would make a hundred different movies.  And boy, I’m sure glad this guy made this one.

Something specific I loved was his ease with breaking strict chronology.  He would follow a trail on, say, sound systems, and then loop back to an earlier period to start another thread.  It’s to his credit that he knew he could play with time.  After all, as Kreutzmann says in the film, “It’s not about keeping the time, it’s about keeping the feeling.”

There’s also a nice tribute to Bear, and a lot of footage and stories about The Wall of Sound.

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When asked about how much more unseen home-movie type footage there was, the director said pretty much everything that was any good that they uncovered or was in the archives made it into the movie.  (see, also: Hours, 4) 

Plus, there’s a fabulous use of still photographs in all different manner of creative collages to tell the story.  Even for hardcore lifelong Deadheads like myself and the whole row of people I went with, there’s oodles of stuff you’ve never seen or heard before.

I was lucky enough to experience this on what the director said was the best screen and sound system it’s ever been shown on — the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto.  It was my first night out of the house since the election 5½ months ago (!) and the hardcore Deadheads in this town, led by Trevor Cape, set up a whole Dead scene with hanging tapestries and a six-piece band playing in the second floor lounge leading into the theater for an hour before the screening.  Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart.

Also, a guy I know, Steve Silberman, does some excellent storytelling himself about how an average kid from New Jersey discovered the band — sort of standing in for all who found their way to the sound & the furious party.  He also does a brilliant rap on how a Dead show’s crowd was like a Tibetan mandala with all these different pieces that make up the whole.  There’s the ones who every night go to The Phil Zone where they can hear and see him best.  Then there’s the Jerry people.  Then there’s the spinners out in the hallway.  Then there’s the Wharf Rats who are supporting each other through their sobriety.  Then there’s the tapers . . . and on and on with all these different groups that come together to make up the whole.

And I’m even in the damn thing!  Front & center at Radio City Music Hall in full Steal Your Face make-up dancing to Not Fade Away!

Somebody made a cool comment in the movie about the irony of — “The most ephemeral band in history became the most recorded.”  These guys were living in the moment for 30 years, only concerned with the next note played, and not with their official photos or albums or anything else built to last, and yet they created something that has an ever-present ever-growing worldwide life of its own.

Classic Albums made a Grate doc in 1997, “Anthem to Beauty,” about those transitional studio years — but there’s no doubt this is the show we’ve all been waiting for.  Deadheads will be throwing house parties around screenings of this for the rest of time, but even more importantly, it achieves the collective filmmakers’ objective of telling the story non-Deadheads will get.

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For more on The Grateful Dead and Jack Kerouac & The Beats — check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac or at Amazon here.  It’s got the most detailed exploration of the connection between the Dead and the Beats ever in print.

Or there’s lots more about it here on my site.

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by Brian Hassett  —  karmacoupon@gmail.com   —  BrianHassett.com

Or here’s my Facebook account if you wanna follow things there —

https://www.facebook.com/Brian.Hassett.Canada

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16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ken Morris // May 2, 2017 at 11:07 AM

    Absolute Dead, Absolute Hassett — layers & layers of love. Some of your best, my man.

  • 2 Dale Topham // May 2, 2017 at 11:46 AM

    Radio City Music Hall? Not Fade Away? Could it be better? “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be!”

  • 3 Joe Myles // May 2, 2017 at 12:08 PM

    Wow! Great review. Can’t wait to see it!!

  • 4 Audra Yeomans // May 2, 2017 at 12:40 PM

    As if I am not excited already!! Best part, of course you are in the movie!! Thanks my friend! Xo

  • 5 Captain Trips // May 2, 2017 at 12:46 PM

    Had to stop reading to avoid spoilers, but just wanted to point out his name was Dick Latvala. Can’t wait to see this.

  • 6 Brian // May 2, 2017 at 12:54 PM

    Oops — You’d think I’d know that by now. 😀
    Thanks for catching it and mentioning it.

  • 7 David Rooster // May 2, 2017 at 1:43 PM

    I saw it in SF a few weeks ago and loved every minute of it..a true masterpiece.

  • 8 Megan Reese // May 2, 2017 at 2:29 PM

    I can’t wait!!!! It’s in my calendar!!!!

  • 9 Tevan Houpt // May 2, 2017 at 3:21 PM

    It was an Honor and a Pleasure to Share the Experience Brother.

  • 10 Jeremy Canonico // May 2, 2017 at 4:07 PM

    Great review B. I gotta catch this when it comes through. Sounds like they nailed it.

  • 11 Craig McKenzie // May 2, 2017 at 5:46 PM

    Great review Brian!

  • 12 Bo Boldon // May 2, 2017 at 7:59 PM

    Wonderful review! Thank you for sharing your insight.

  • 13 Ed Cremmins // May 2, 2017 at 10:55 PM

    I gotta admit, I’m kinda bummed there’s no DVD release, I was hoping to buy it immediately…now I have to subscribe to Amazon?

  • 14 Brian Markovitz // May 2, 2017 at 11:34 PM

    That’s why Amazon plopped down their money, so you would reach that conclusion. They saw how many people subscribed to Netflix when they grabbed the Bob Weir movie a couple years ago. That’s how it works nowadays.

  • 15 Albert Kaufman // May 3, 2017 at 2:11 AM

    Nice review, Brian! Can’t wait to see it – hopefully in SF on 5.25!
    Nice sharing a few shows together. RFK, MSG, Spectrum, Nassau 🙂

  • 16 Brian // May 3, 2017 at 7:53 AM

    And Radio City! 🙂

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