Grateful Dead documentary will ripple through Sundance |

Grateful Dead documentary will ripple through Sundance

“Long Strange Trip” filmmaker sees band’s influence continuing

The Sundance Film Festival documentary Long Strange Trip explores the history of the Grateful Dead, which emerged from the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1960s. The filmmaker, Amir Bar-Lev, says the band was animated by big ideas and revolutionary ideas.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

A documentary about the Grateful Dead is expected to ripple through the Sundance Film Festival.

The film “Long Strange Trip,” with a name taken from a famous Grateful Dead lyric, is scheduled to premiere during the festival. It will be another in a lengthy list of Sundance entries spotlighting famous acts from the rock ’n’ roll era and one that the filmmaker says offers insights into a band that has perhaps been more closely documented than any other in the decades since it emerged from San Francisco in the 1960s.

The Grateful Dead spent more than 30 years leading a communal group of Deadheads across the U.S. and foreign lands before the death of singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. The surviving members of the Grateful Dead performed a set of farewell concerts in 2015 marking the 50th anniversary of the band.

“This is a group of people who were animated by big ideas and revolutionary ideas, and those are ideas that we tried to kind of burnish and polish and grapple with again,” said Amir Bar-Lev, the filmmaker. “They gave away their music for free. They never pursued celebrity and rock stardom in the way that most people do. And they invited their audience to be part of the experience rather than be on the receiving end of a polished, phony performance.”

Bar-Lev, a Sundance veteran who has previously screened four films at the festival, said he wanted to move away from a typical documentary about a rock ’n’ roll band. The film is closer in style to his previous works than the “cookie-cutter form” of documentaries about musicians, he said. Bar-Lev, who is 44 years old and based in Brooklyn, N.Y., went to his first Grateful Dead concert in 1986 and saw the band numerous times while growing up in the San Francisco area.

“It’s like the many-headed hydra. The Grateful Dead is not just one person. The Grateful Dead is something that, in a way, can’t be killed. It’s a pluralistic idea. The band is part of it and the fans are, too,” he said.

“Long Strange Trip” culls archival footage to complement more recent interviews with the surviving band members conducted two years or so ago. Bar-Lev also spoke to members of the Grateful Dead family, including roadies and a tour manager from the 1970s. He said the documentary, though, does not feature interviews with experts like music critics or modern-day musicians discussing the Grateful Dead, two staples in rock ’n’ roll documentaries.

Bar-Lev said he wants young people to see the documentary to learn about a band that is much different than the acts of today. The authentic and the fictitious in today’s world are difficult to delineate, he said. He said he made the documentary for teenagers of today “in the hopes that they can pull their nose out of their phones.”

“If you think about what it is like to be a teenager today, and how blurred the distinctions are between what’s real and what’s fake, what’s music and what’s branding, I think the world needs the Grateful Dead again. Culture needs the Grateful Dead again, maybe never stopped needing it,” he also said.

Bar-Lev said there is an “urgency” in rock ’n’ roll that has been forgotten. The documentary attempts to recapture that ideal. He said the Grateful Dead “really are outlaws in a way.” He likened the influence of the Grateful Dead to the famous Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, author of “On the Road.”

“In the same way that teenagers pick up Jack Kerouac today and find it relevant, and it changes their life, I think teenagers into the future are going find the Grateful Dead and it will work its magic on them,” Bar-Lev said.

Three of the surviving band members are anticipated to travel to Park City for Sundance – guitarist and singer Bob Weir and the two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.

“Long Strange Trip” is scheduled to screen at the following times:

  • Monday, Jan. 23, 8:30 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre
  • Tuesday, Jan. 24, 8:30 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre
  • Thursday, Jan. 26, 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City
  • Saturday, Jan. 28, 8:45 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre.

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