Film: Joy & Pain

‘Long Strange Trip’ chronicles the Grateful Dead

By Richard von Busack

Jerry Garcia is 22 years dead this summer—take that in. Long Strange Trip, Berkeley-raised documentarian Amir Bar-Lev’s monumental four-hour-long film about the Grateful Dead can neither be called indecently early nor rushed to completion. Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) explains the Dead as an enduring conduit between the Beat Era and the various countercultures of our own time.

It’s a record of the joy the Dead brought to listeners for 30 years, and an account of Garcia’s excesses of work and substance abuse. It’s also the story of a juggernaut band with a monster 100-foot-tall sound system, which was set up and pulled down 80 times a year for almost a decade. Even their own label didn’t quite get them at first—former Warner Bros. executive Joe Smith recalls the problem of trying to sell a record called Aoxomoxoa when he couldn’t even pronounce its name. The label had more success after they moved to Marin and created their most enduring albums, the Bakersfield countrified Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

This study of the band’s long voyage includes crisp montage, thoughtful interviews and informed commentary by Sam Cutler, a Brit who worked as the Dead’s road manager. A particularly well-chosen mix of some 60 songs by the band fits the history of this long-lived act, both in the the dawning and the ending of their time. The music is maybe sadder than you remember, but the Grateful Dead were the kind of fun that should have lasted a lifetime.

‘Long Strange Trip’ plays on Thursday, May 25 at 5:45pm and 6:30pm, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-1222; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

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