It’s almost cosmic, that magic connection a fan feels for “their band.”
The first-ever Grateful Dead documentary to have participation from all living members recently had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and the heavy buzz around “Long Strange Trip” is giving longtime Dead Heads, myself included, another milestone to carry forward the band’s counterculture legacy.
In the holding tent outside the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, which was turning extra ticket hopefuls away due to max capacity, I caught myself looking the line up and down exchanging nods with studio execs and industry vets who revealed their die-hard Dead Head roots rocking their favorite old concert T’s and stereotypical stoner college gear (shout out to UVM, one of my alma maters). There were even a few folks vaporizing … in Utah.
Unlike any other Sundance screening I’ve attended over the past six years, the crowd felt familiar. Like family. And that comfortable vibe stuck with me throughout the epic four-hour screening that immersed the audience in the psychedelic world of Jerry Garcia and company. I have yet to shake the energy of that night, which is still lingering in my heart.
Berkeley-bred director Amir Bar-Lev – a self proclaimed Dead Head since age 13 – originally pitched the project to Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Bob Weir in 2003, and the film became a decade-plus-long strange trip itself. Over the course of the next 15 years, the filmmaker became a Sundance regular with “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story” and “Happy Valley” standing out among a long list of documentary projects. After working through pushback from the Jerry Garcia estate in 2010 and nabbing Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, Bar-Lev was able to fully commit to finishing the film in 2014, compiling never-before-seen footage, tens of thousands of photographs and new interviews.
The monumental tribute earned immediate and poignant accolades from Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone — both critics admittedly disciples of Captain Trips. The Cannabist caught up with Bar-Lev as he wound down his rock doc run in Park City to talk about the legacy of the Grateful Dead’s spirit, how cannabis is an intrinsic part of the community, and reaching “The End of the Road.”
The Cannabist: There was a crazy energy in the room at the premiere, surreal even. How was the night for you?
Amir Bar-Lev: Incredible. This is the end of a 15 year journey for me and besides my two kids, it’s the thing that I am most proud of in my life, so it’s been very emotional.
Cannabist: The success of the film aside, what does the Grateful Dead mean to you?
Bar-Lev: One of the things that the film talks about is the human continuum of ideas. Jerry was very careful to say he wouldn’t have become who he was without reading “On the Road” and I wouldn’t have become who I am without the Grateful Dead. I’m not putting the film on the same level as “On the Road” by any stretch, but it’s definitely a signpost.
Cannabist: It’s obvious that you’re a fan in directing a film like this. How did you first get into the band?
Bar-Lev: My parents pointed me in the direction of their generation of music very early on. When I discovered the Grateful Dead — around 1984 — even then I understood the importance that they represented something much more. They were in this camp of musicians that actually had integrity, and for me and other teenagers in the ’80s, it was a salvation from the phoniness we saw in society.
The Grateful Dead, circa 1966. (Special Collections, University of California, Santa Cruz)
Cannabist: How did your fandom carry you through the project?
Bar-Lev: When you catch an inspiration like that, you just want to share it and send it into the future, which kind of became my mission with this film. I think we were successful in that by telling their story and I hope that the film renews some of those big, unconventional ideas that drew me to the Grateful Dead in the first place. I think it’s incumbent upon all of us now to carry that spirit of expression and share ideas through these challenging times.
Cannabist: In all of that footage, what’s one of the major finds that stands out?
Bar-Lev: Actually, it’s a clip of the Velvet Underground where Lou Reed says, “between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” In the relative scale of things, it’s pretty easy to think you have an epiphany but the challenge lies in expressing it. When people would always ask “why does everyone love the Grateful Dead?” the easy answer was always “I can’t explain it, you have to just go see a show.” I kept that with me throughout this process and challenged myself to try and explain it.
Cannabist: Why do you think there is such a connection between cannabis and Dead Heads?
Bar-Lev: Jerry’s first focus was fun. It was very hedonistic, but after time, it became the thing that they become synonymous with and marijuana was a big part of that. I don’t think that’s an accident that the two cultures are so intertwined and “stoner” was just an easier label for naysayers to digest. But back then, everyone saying Dead Heads “are just a bunch of rascals getting high all the time” wasn’t accurate. This film I think allows that to get articulated, which makes me really happy.
But really, it’s pretty simple: their music is great music to listen to when you’re stoned. We consciously made the film to work on a lot of levels — or should I say on a special kind of level. They gave us access to (musical) stems from their studio days, which let us create some scenes with like, three songs swirling around at once.
Cannabist: What’s behind this recent renewed interest and revival drawing new fans?
Bar-Lev: Now 30 years later, that same phoniness the Dead defied is an even bigger part of our culture: the selfies … the narcissim … it’s basically the culture, so I think people are sort of yearning for a truer sense of integrity and authenticity. The film is a small attempt to offer a piece of that experience.
I went to the 50th anniversary shows in Chicago and it really moved me more than I expected. There is still something there — seeing them as their true selves on stage and not performing at you like you see with other bands… it’s magic. Once you have fallen in love with the Grateful Dead, in a way, you can never go back. I can’t think of another band with that realness. At the end of the day, the Grateful Dead were and still are just fantastic musicians.
Outside of its full-length, Sundance screenings (set-break included), the rest of the world will be able to see Long Strange Trip as a six-part documentary on Amazon Prime Video in the United States and United Kingdom (set to debut May 26) with a slate of special screenings in theaters to be announced.