A funny thing happened on the way to the theater for many a critic reviewing Long Strange Trip, the superb new documentary on the history and music of the Grateful Dead. They went in with an indifferent attitude if not outright contempt and came out with a newfound appreciation — and even awe — for the seductive power of this most American of bands which, as the Dead lyric says, could steal your face right off your head.

Long Strange Trip clocks in at four hours, although it seems shorter, while Amazon Prime Video has thoughtfully snipped it into six segments, the better to appreciate and not be quite so overwhelmed by director Amir Bar-Lev’s beautifully executed approach to documentary making, which not unlike the Dead’s music is at its heart improvisational. (Martin Scorsese executive produced.)

Typical of critics who, to mangle another Dead lyric, got shown the light in the strangest of places because they looked at it right, is John Semley in Salon, who opened his review with:

Here’s an annoying meta-textual confession — the kind where the author of an article forcefully inserts himself (or herself, but in this case: himself) right up top, in an open violation of essayistic decorum that borders on the indulgently diaristic — I initially set out here to rag on the Grateful Dead. . . . Or rather, I set out to entertain the idea of ragging on them using the band’s new . . . documentary to make a case for the venerable jam band as a strictly Boomer concern, fated to fade our like so many sun-bleached tie-dye shirts. I wanted to argue, persuasively that the Dead was dead. I mean, it just sounds so enticing: “Is the Dead dead?”

But I couldn’t do it.

What will blow the minds of people who are not committed Deadheads (which having seen some 100 shows I most certainly am), is that the Grateful Dead were a top concert draw for decades, filling stadium after stadium on never ending cross-country tours without ever becoming part of the musical mainstream. Unlike Bruce, Michael or Madonna, they never toured behind a new album, as is customary, and before de facto leader Jerry Garcia took his last trip in 1995, only one of their 23 albums to that point was a super seller, In the Dark in 1987.

This is because, as Semley and other critics figured out, the Dead had an uncanny from-the-heart ability to tap into our seemingly bottomless utopian energies. That sounds terribly cliché-ish but is true, a point made over and over by an eclectic cast of family, friends and hangers-on in interviews throughout the movie. Which brings me back to why I call the Dead the most American of bands.

As I wrote recently in reprising my favorite Dead show:

The short answer is that they were a psychedelic-tinged juggernaut whose jamming can seem unsophisticated to jazz aficionados, of which I happen to be one, but was not.

The long answer is that the Dead were an American band. Their songs . . . mined rich veins of Americana, including Appalachian folklore, New Orleans mythos, Memphis blues and Wild West balladry, as well as some biblical narrative, dollops of generational angst and celebration of Sixties counterculture along with all those jams.

Or as Garcia puts it in Long Strange Trip while rapping with Beat avatar Jack Kerouac, “That’s what motivates the audience. The spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure in America at large.”

All four surviving members of the original Dead — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzman and Micky Hart — appear in the film and Bar-Lev was given full access to the band’s enormous archives. More than 1,100 photographs saunter by (many of them never before seen), there is considerable live concert footage (some of the early stuff is just sensational) and some wonderfully intimate moments (a snippet of the band in studio working out harmonies for “Candyman” in 1970 is marvelous).

Aspects of the documentary are undeniably dark, and it is especially painful to watch Garcia slowly burn out as he struggles with fame and heroin addiction, but the marathon run time of the movie works not just because it is so damned good, but because it is epic and so were the Dead.

Where critics and I part ways — that is the ones for mainstream publications who struggle to fit the Grateful Dead into a larger context — is their need to discuss whether the Dead are “relevant” again, and as some ponder, whether their seeming irrelevance actually makes them relevant.

To which I say, in mangling yet another Dead lyric, there is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night.

IMAGE: The Dead play a free concert at the height of the Summer of Love
in the Haight, San Francisco, June 1967. Photograph © Jim Marshall

Shaun Mullen
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2017 The Moderate Voice