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May 18, 2018

Dead Set

For a determined director, telling the story of the Grateful Dead was a singular rock odyssey.

Iain Blair

When director Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) set out to make a documentary about the Grateful Dead and their decades-long trip from local Bay Area band to international superstars, he had no idea the process would ultimately mirror one of guitarist Jerry Garcia's famously long, inventive and discursive solos.

"We planned to make a 90-minute film, but soon realized the story was too epic to fit into that format," he says. "And we also wanted to take a fresh storytelling approach which allowed you to follow it wherever it wanted to go — sort of like mining. When you hit the vein, you go with it."

The result is Long Strange Trip, a kaleidoscopic, novelistic, four-hour odyssey executive-produced by Martin Scorsese. Currently streaming on Amazon Video, the documentary uses multilayered audio and visuals to bring to vivid life the band's own long strange trip. It includes previously unseen and rare footage, some 15,000 stills, candid insider interviews and anecdotes — and even clips from the classic horror film Frankenstein (a longtime Garcia obsession).

While Bar-Lev happily admits to being "a huge fan" of the band's music, he also wanted to make "an objective film, and so I purposely surrounded myself with a team who were jazz-heads and punk rockers, not Deadheads." He didn't want a film that spoke only to fans. "I think it's very timely and relevant and pertinent. It's about creativity and narcissism, and their relationship with celebrity and money."

To tackle all these angles, Bar-Lev created "a near army" of collaborators. Their work involved "years of transcribing old interviews, digging lost footage out of people's attics and storage facilities, 'baking' and restoring tapes that had lost their magnetism, sending out calls for home movies, and going to all the rock photographers and paying them flat fees for every shot they'd ever taken of the band, as we wanted those never-seen shots, not just the famous, iconic ones."

This approach yielded a treasure trove of raw material that had to be catalogued, culled and edited. "Editing took three years, and I was tearing my hair out at every point," he says, laughing. "It was an incredibly challenging film to make, and we went way over budget and schedule, which was another constant source of anxiety."

However, "The Grateful Dead, to their credit, were very cooperative, and sometimes had to intercede when people around them tried to make sure that the story was controlled," Bar-Lev says. "In the end, the band let us tell the story, warts and all."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018

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