Thursday, January 4, 2018

Amazon’s Grateful Dead Documentary

Advertising photograph of the Grateful Dead (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Long Strange Trip is an Amazon-produced documentary by Amir Bar-Lev that provides an in-depth examination of the history (and pre-history) of the Grateful Dead. More specifically, it is about as comprehensive a biography of Jerry Garcia as one could hope to see in cinema form, beginning with his early interest in bluegrass and his pre-Dead groups that performed both on the Peninsula and later in San Francisco, primarily in Haight-Ashbury. The entire film lasts over four and one-half hours; but it is structured in six “acts.” The Amazon streaming Web page is set up to stream each of these acts separately. Having just experienced the film in its entirety, with one intermission between the third and fourth acts, I have to say that this showed excellent judgment on Amazon’s part.

Unless you are a thoroughly committed Deadhead (a concept that is explained in considerable detail in Act V), this film is likely to tell you more about Garcia and the Dead that you would ever want to know. One comes away feeling that there was no aspect of either of those topics that Bar-Lev felt could be deleted. However, to the extent that the duration of the entirety is about the same as that of many (if not most) of the Dead’s concerts, I can imagine that the faithful will appreciate that no detail was to minor to be left on the cutting room floor.

For the rest of us, what matters most is the music. As a result I found myself thoroughly absorbed in Garcia’s early work with different acoustic instruments before taking the plunge into the electronic domain. Similarly, there is much to enjoy in observing how the group managed to stay abreast of advances in electronic technology. (That includes digital, but that is one topic that Bar-Lev chose to elide.) Furthermore, the engineer in me was fascinated with the technical details behind the construction and use of a wall of loudspeakers that occupied the width of the stage and rose to at least four times the height of the performers.

As to the music, what mattered most to me was Bar-Lev’s emphasis that, for the Dead, performing always mattered more than recording. This was a rock group for which improvisation mattered as much as it did for any of the leading bebop artists, and the act of improvising always took the performers to seriously giddy heights. Indeed, the rise of the Dead to cult status coincided roughly with the emergence of easily portable equipment for making quality recordings. Since the members of the Dead did not see themselves as a recording company (or any other kind of business), they never tried to prevent their fans from creating such “audio documents,” most of which were preserved in cassette form.

Furthermore, those recordings were not only preserved but also shared among the community of Deadheads. One of the most intriguing sequences (for me at least) involved interviewing people about these recordings, people who could single out the date and location of their favorite improvisations. Those familiar with Dean Benedetti will probably take great delight in how the spirit behind his personal recordings of Charlie Parker has revived among the Deadheads.

Nevertheless, the entire film is a product that, for all but the rabidly indefatigable, is best appreciated when viewed one act at a time.

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