A Jewish filmmaker’s long strange trip to documenting the Grateful Dead
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Interview'I was always making this film in my mind'

A Jewish filmmaker’s long strange trip to documenting the Grateful Dead

Amir Bar-Lev's four-hour homage to all things Dead is ambrosia for fans -- and a good way to initiate as yet ungrateful nonbelievers

Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir backstage in 1977. (Peter Simon)
Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir backstage in 1977. (Peter Simon)

NEW YORK — Not just anybody wins a slew of awards from major film festivals during their downtime. But looked at from a unique point of view, a theme in documentarian Amir Bar-Lev’s work, his extraordinary career was built while waiting for his dream project to come together.

Bar-Lev, whose father came to America from Israel as a boy, sent his first cold email to someone within the Grateful Dead’s organization in 2003. Now, nearly 15 years later (and after his successful films “The Tillman Story,” “My Kid Could Paint That” and others), his four-hour epic “Long Strange Trip” (which boasts an executive producer credit from Martin Scorsese), is now coming to theaters and Amazon’s streaming platform.

The film is a mechaye for Deadheads who have long yearned for a contained (and enjoyable) document they could point to and say to those who don’t quite get it: “Watch this and then you’ll understand what’s so special about this band!”

Devised to appeal to newcomers, the movie also goes long on many fascinating topics. The musical roots of the psychedelic ’60s Northern California group is explored, as well as a frank, scientific look at LSD. Other segments look into the specificity of their touring rig (the “Wall of Sound”) and the fanaticism of their acolytes and their pre-internet methods of trading recordings.

As a pretty hardcore Grateful Dead fan, I had the very good fortune to speak with Bar-Lev recently in New York. This is a truncated version of that conversation, which towards the end dives into some shorthand for those initiated already in the band’s cryptical envelopment.

Filmmaker Amir Bar Lev. (Courtesy)
Filmmaker Amir Bar Lev. (Courtesy)

The Sundance screening was one of the best experiences I’ve had at a film festival. I love the Grateful Dead so much and I was so worried. Will this “come correct?”

I can put myself in your shoes. In fact, I was almost in them, in a way. There were times I was told “You aren’t making this, another filmmaker is.” There were other films, and there was an old regime [of Grateful Dead management]. But when I first wrote to [Grateful Dead music publisher] Alan Trist he wrote back saying “[Grateful Dead lyricist Robert] Hunter and I have watched your film ‘Fighter,’” which is a Jewish film about two old Jews arguing about the Holocaust. But he said “we watched it and think you should move forward.” I freaked out and thought “It can’t be that easy.” I was right. It wasn’t that easy.

The film was originally just going to be about the lyrics, but it changed over the years because of rival projects. It was like Chutes and Ladders — I’d ingratiate myself to one key person, then they’d get fired and I’d be back at square one.

But it wasn’t like you just twiddled your thumbs, you were making substantial films in the meantime.

But my heart was going to break. I was always making this film in my mind. Ultimately there were two camps, people who were supportive and who were not. There was even a time when they said “Congratulations, Amir. You are one of the final four who will get to make this movie, and we will not tell you who the others are. Submit a new proposal, only one of you will win.” And I didn’t win.

Eventually, though, you got the show on the road. And Martin Scorsese vouched for you?

Well, there was a moment when the Grateful Dead got cold feet. And Scorsese bumped into [drummer] Bill Kreutzmann at a party and their very short conversation rescued this movie from oblivion.

He knew your work?

You are supposing a certain amount of… it was more like “Hey, what’s the deal?”

Mickey Hart performing during a Grateful Dead concert on Haight Street, March 3, 1968. (© Jim Marshall Photography, LLC. All rights reserved)
Mickey Hart performing during a Grateful Dead concert on Haight Street, March 3, 1968. (© Jim Marshall Photography, LLC. All rights reserved)

Wow. Well, if that’s what it takes. Well, I’m glad it happened.

‘Jerry Garcia’s role in the relationship was to be very committed to the now’

To a guy like you and me, we are interested in posterity. The band wasn’t interested in posterity. But that’s how I got into the band, because of those tapes. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Jerry Garcia’s role in the relationship was to be very committed to the now. Our role and the fan’s role is to preserve that for future generations. But there’s a way to preserve and a way not to preserve. You’ve got to be careful of slavish devotion to a personality cult.

Also finding a new way to tell the story. I love that you never mention “Woodstock” once in this movie.

Because that turns people’s brains right off.

Jerry Garcia lying on the floor, circa 1970. (Herb Greene)
Jerry Garcia lying on the floor, circa 1970. (Herb Greene)

Even though the movie is four hours, there’s plenty you leave out. You dwell on cooler stuff than running down a list of every temporary member of the group.

We didn’t care if the movie was 90 minutes or four hours. All we cared about was being a good conduit into [Bar-Lev then names the very emotional song that plays at the end of the film, that brought a fan like me to a blubbering mess when he saw it the first time. No spoilers!].

So you had the ending first?

If you consider this moment now the ending? Yes. The notion that there is an energy that courses through time that didn’t start with the Grateful Dead, and won’t end with the Grateful Dead, but the Grateful Dead were a good conduit for it. In the same way the Grateful Dead points to Jack Kerouac and Kerouac points back to [Grateful Dead LSD chemist and audio engineer] Owsley. You just need to build a compelling story and the Wikipedia way is a terrible way to do it.

When I saw the movie it struck me that it mirrored a Dead show in a way. That the first half was a little more traditional, and that’s where you get the catchier songs, then after the set-break it launches into more unpredictable places, like the show would do with “Drums” turning into “Space.”

I remember reading you saying that. And it was an accident. I didn’t think about it consciously. But there’s a reason both things do that, a Dead show and the film. Because once you get late into the show or in the film, you’re cooking with butter. Your audience has a set of shared meanings. There’s a symbolic language that’s created, and you can mess with it. You can build layers upon meaning. And I think that’s what the Grateful Dead did too. Once they had the audience where they wanted, they could begin to mess with expectations and to create sets of expectations, or you start to break them.

From left to right, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, during a Grateful Dead concert on Haight Street, March 3, 1968. (© Jim Marshall Photography, LLC. All rights reserved)
From left to right, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, during a Grateful Dead concert on Haight Street, March 3, 1968. (© Jim Marshall Photography, LLC. All rights reserved)

Your movie does not shy away from discussing LSD in something other than a cautionary way.

This film is for teenagers, incidentally. And I think the teenagers would do well to pull their nose out of their phones. LSD isn’t like alcohol. It doesn’t deliver you a good feeling automatically. It does make you think. It’s not accidental that it is responsible for their amazing sound system. All sound systems owe a debt to the Wall of Sound.

There seem to be a lot of Jewish Grateful Dead fans, more so than, say, I dunno, Led Zeppelin or something.

Yeah, the guy from Tablet said the same thing.

There were some fans particularly of Jerry Garcia, that saw him as shaman or a mystic or something. Is there some sort of spiritual thing going on there that relates to the Jewish experience that you want to comment about?

Emphatically, no.

Gotcha.

[Smiling] There’s obviously a deeply religious component to the Grateful Dead, but I would argue that it’s emphatically anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical, that the fans are co-creating the magic. And those people who missed that part of the memo and put Jerry up on a big pedestal not only didn’t quite get the Grateful Dead, but also contributed to Jerry’s death.

The Wall of Sound. (Courtesy Amazon Prime Video)
The Wall of Sound. (Courtesy Amazon Prime Video)

Your film makes that case quite well.

There’s a tension in every religion, in all mysticism. I think that at the heart of what the Grateful Dead was doing was a mystical enterprise, as most religions are. But, you know, anybody in Israel can tell you that there’s a lot of different ways to be Jewish.

Most of my family lives in a kibbutz. The notion of a collective enterprise of moving through time and moving towards a goal in a partnership with other people who are different than you is, for me and my family, the essence of Judaism. It makes things move super slowly. It makes you have to endure interminable meetings, but that was my grandparents’ Judaism, and that’s the Grateful Dead.

What’s your favorite Grateful Dead show?

Well, I do listen to Barton Hall a lot, even though it’s not cool to say that. [Writer’s note: I could explain to you what Amir means by that, but it would take an awful lot of typing, and still wouldn’t mean much to someone who hasn’t devoted a lot of time to loving the Grateful Dead. Suffice it to say, this is a funny thing to say if you are “in the know.”]

I listen to 3/1/69 all the time. And Pauley Pavilion [11/17/73]. I like the “sandwich” shows. [Where they segue from] “Playing” to “Uncle,” to “Dew,” to “Uncle,” [and then back] to “Playing.”

Had [founding member Ronald Charles McKernan] “Pigpen” lived, would this movie have been made?

No. And, really, had Jerry lived this movie wouldn’t have been made either.

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