Three episodes into this series, I’m confronted with the greatest example of why I’m in this genre of Music on Film. The film I am speaking about is a dream topic for me and entirely emblematic of my stock in this subject.The Rockumentary is something I consider to be a holy genre, because, at its best, like the greatest regular documentaries, it offers a clear window into something you thought you’d never see or that you shouldn’t necessarily be able to see. Often, that you’re able to look into a specific moment in time at all is the result of dumb luck that produces a piece of footage one might value till their dying day.
As far as clear windows into points of history are concerned, for my tastes, it doesn’t get more exciting than witnessing moments of living, breathing, creativity; namely music. Thanks to filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, I’m able to watch the last Ziggy Stardust show, which is something that must be seen to truly be understood. Also thanks to Pennebaker, I can watch Dylan go electric alongside The Hawks, who would become The Band. Thanks to filmmakers like Marty Scorsese, who brought us the phenomenal three-hour, No DIrection Home, those who were never introduced to Dylan organically can be presented with a perfect telling of his story, chock full of rare holy footage that helps make one of the greatest minds of the century contextualized and understood.
There have naturally been countless incredible societal occurrences over the last century since film first gave us our truest reflection of reality, but in a time before YouTube spoiled our culture with endless clips at our fingertips, causing us to take for granted the miracle of footage and, more importantly, access to that footage, the incident I most wanted to see, until I realized that I’d actually be able to do so, was The Acid Test, which in short, took the Beat movement, which had an astronomical hand in shaping a counter culture, and dosed it with LSD25, taking an already far out mindframe and expanding it outwards beyond its wildest dreams; in the process, creating an electric monster out of a garage band called The Warlocks. It’s when two moments in time ceremoniously met for a torch passing to end all torch passings. It would effectively change the course of history in ways we still can’t, and maybe never will, fully fathom.
Like how Scorsese brought the mind-expanding tale of Bob Dylan to the screen, Amir Bar-Lev has taken on the impossible task of documenting the history of The Grateful Dead - that innocent band, first named The Warlocks, who were in for an evolutionary catalyst. In doing so, also tracks the story of 60s counter-culture with the type of mind-blowingly rare footage worth coveting; the revelatory kind that adds layers to a story you’ve heard to death that you never even knew were there. His footage begins as shockingly early as the dawn of the 60s, while the Beat movement was still in full effect (albeit on the way out) and numerous youths including the likes of Dylan to Garcia and on were continuing to be blown away by the earth shattering On The Road by Jack Kerouac, which was published only a few years prior in 1957. On The Road exposed America to an alternate perspective of itself with its real life tales of guys who had been living perpendicularly to the American Dream since the mid-40s. They lived for kicks and by no means the cheap kind, though there were plenty of those too, in their search for an alternative way of being; a philosophy that championed life as something to live to the fullest rather than spent wasting away at mundane occupations.
If this all sounds irrelevant, understand that it is anything but and entirely at the heart of The Grateful Dead story, which will live on long past the lifespan of its members. While it’s a story of an attitude carried over from a subsequent generation, the tangible crossover that occurred when author, Ken Kesey, who wrote 1962’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, was recruited by the CIA as scientific guinea pig of science, was when things got really interesting. It’s said in Long Strange Trip that to consider the absurdity of life, look no further than the CIA’s introducing the world to Acid as evidence of God’s prankster sense of humour.
Hoping to develop a sort of truth serum for use by the army, the government spent tax dollars to give subjects like Kesey LSD25, inadvertently creating what Tim Leary would refer to as the psychedelic experience. They created truth alright, but not the kind they were hoping for. The truth produced by acid turned out to be of the lucid persuasion. The kind of truth that allows you to look at yourself and the world and yourself in the world and form conclusions on a higher plane of consciousness than most people will ever dream of, aside from Buddhists, whose Tibetan Book of The Dead had long since preached the merits of ego death.
Once Kesey figured out how to get his hands on the as of yet illegal substance (because nobody knew what it was), he knew the first thing he had to do was to take it on the road. And who better to drive the bus than the fast-talking, speed-driving, holy goof hero of Kerouac’s On The Road, Neal Cassady, whose spirit proved infectious not only to Kerouac, but to his new younger friends as well. This part of the story, which occurred in 1964, is well documented by Alex Gibney in his film, Magic Trip, but what’s as, if not more, fascinating than the first psychedelic bus trip across America in intrepid search for a newer kind of America, is what happened upon their return.
This would be when The Acid Tests began and four boys and their slightly older guitar teacher, aka The Warlocks, were recruited to act as the house band. Each kid - Billy, Bobby, Jerry, Phil, and Pigpen, brought with him an individual slice of American music and everyone tried hard to adhere to their teacher’s rigid standards. Soon, with the help of LSD, they’d learn the key to a new plane of success; one that had nothing to do with worldly accolades, but a far more personal sense of accomplishment, where practice most certainly did not make perfect. They had to shed their aspirations and their egos. Because of a New York band already called The Warlocks (who’d soon change their own name to The Velvet Underground), they even had to change their name. In short, they had to die. As a result, few people lived lives as fully as The Grateful Dead.
If this only scratches the surface of what it meant to be The Grateful Dead and what they provided and continue to provide the world, which goes so far beyond music, note that this is entirely on purpose, considering Amir Bar-Lev’s miraculously good Long Strange Trip tells the immense story far better than words are capable of doing. His film epitomizes the importance of the genre, proving my point that the best things in life must be seen to be fully believed, and even how seeing sometimes fails on occasions where you won't believe your eyes. This is how I felt when I first learned that footage of The Acid Test Graduation as a sort of film-meets home movie, not only existed, but could be purchased on Ken Kesey’s website. When it arrived at my door weeks later. I was in utter awe of the great privilege of watching things I thought would only ever exist in my imagination; things that happened long before I was alive to discover them with my first hand presence. Film offers a new sort of proxy presence, and Long Strange Trip offers both presence in the sense that you will feel this strange journey, as well as presence of mind from Bar-Lev who situates his audience in very loving and calculated hands.
For Deadheads, Long Strange Trip film will offer a cherishable experience and yet I’m even more interested in the responses from non-fans. As an outsider, the band can be both intimidating in terms of their massive catalogue and alienating in terms of the religious dedication of their following. As a result, a lot of The Grateful Dead story is misunderstood and inaccessible from afar. That’s because you have to work for the type of appreciation that only applies to this particular band and other religious practices. You have to open your mind to understand just how many layers are being offered and how many lessons are to be learned. To an extent, you have to die..
That said, I don’t see anyone walking out of Long Strange Trip saying, “Yeah, but I don't like the jams” or “the songs are too long”, considering how effectively Bar-Lev conveys that how utterly judgments of this kind are just so fucking besides the point. As such, Bar-Lev has done a great service in offering insightful context and the thorough attention his almost impossible subject demands. Long Strange Trip proves that not only is this century-old story, that begins at the dawn of American music, possible to tell, it’s pleasurable and as mandatory as On The Road was in 1957. It’s a hand me down story of story-tellers with the capacity of mind to relay ancient experience that connects its adventurously-minded listeners with timeworn truths uniting them with dead history in a revolutionarily accessible fashion. While the storyteller speaks, a door within the fire creaks. Intrepid travellers, enter with caution.
At the Sundance premiere, I had the chance of a lifetime to speak with The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, as well as king-roadie and best friend, Steve Parish, and also Trixie Garcia, Jerry’s beautiful daughter. A few days later, I was able to sit down with director, Amir Bar-Lev for a longer chat about his accomplishment: a favorite film that I hope will mean a fraction of as much to you as it does to me.