If one element has been key to the Grateful Dead’s generations of success, it is time.
This is a band with songs like “Friend of the Devil” and “Jack Straw,” numbers that could have been conceived during any era of the American experience.
It’s also a musical collective that has shown no time limit, as more than 50 years after they started playing together, all of the band’s surviving core members still tour regularly.
Now, the Grateful Dead has time on its side on the big screen.
Director Amir Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story”) was certainly patient while assembling “Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead,” his new documentary about the band. The film has been in production for years, and it ultimately clocks in at more than four hours.
Yet, while watching this documentary, much like being in the crowd for an epic “Dark Star” or a particularly potent “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain,” something funny happens — time just falls away. The film’s intimidating running time and the long gap between then and now seem to evaporate, leaving the viewer with a sense of nothing but an ever-evolving, ever-present present.
Like everything else in the band’s world, “Long Strange Trip” is incredibly aware of history while steadfastly insisting on doing things its own way. While the film covers nearly 50 years of history – from singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia’s youth to the band’s end with Garcia’s death in 1995 – it takes a scenic route getting there.
The film may not hit all the points of the band’s timeline in the order or the manner one would expect (Robert Hunter’s landmark work as the Dead’s lyricist goes unmentioned until the second half), and there are some editorial choices that die-hard fans may find objectionable, such as the incredibly limited amount of screen time given to later Dead members Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux and Brent Mydland.
Still, there are countless moments devotees will cherish, from glimpses of Garcia’s pre-Dead coffeehouse folk scene days to footage of Garcia gently but surely coaching bandmates Bob Weir and Phil Lesh through the harmonies on what became “Candyman.”
The film doesn’t concern itself with details like exact dates, and largely avoids name-checking specific albums or songs. There are a few notable exceptions: drummer Bill Kreutzmann breaks down the polyrhythmic intricacies of early triumph “The Other One,” Deadhead and Minnesota senator Al Franken discusses his favorite live recording of “Althea” (1980 at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum) and former Warner Bros. executive Joe Smith contextualizes the commercial breakthrough that was the band’s 1970 “Workingman’s Dead” album.
But really, this is not a film about the facts and the figures. It’s about these people, their journey and the story that’s shaped the global musical landscape. This intricately assembled piece of work dedicates plenty of time to not just the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Band but also to the many facets of its fan community, its road crew, its friends and its family.
And that’s the trick of what Bar-Lev is doing here. By not getting bogged down in the statistical biographical minutia, he ensures that the story he’s telling is human, personal and timeless. This is bold filmmaking on the grandest scale, and Bar-Lev wisely keeps his focus on the human side of history.
Alex Biese, USA TODAY Network
Amazon Studios and Ambramorama present a documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Rated R (for drug content throughout, language and some graphic nudity). Running time: 242 minutes. Screening at 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Music Box Theatre, and streaming on Amazon starting June 2.