Most people who wanted to watch this probably deemed the documentary too short and already knew The Grateful Dead’s legacy like the palm of the hand, but for someone who had only heard about the drug-induced transcendental choir that is the Dead, Long Strange Trip is not just a rock-epic, but an epic documentary that explores everything from the Dead’s beatnik and bluegrass roots to their rise as the greatest cult sensation in the world. Long Strange Trip is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences of the year, plunging you into the world of the Dead, developing their legendary mythos, and tracking their legendary rise and tragic fall that aligns with the sad passing of Jerry Garcia. Coming into Long Strange Trip I was scared of being stuck in an unnecessarily-long look at a relic of the past but coming out I must admit I completely understand why people amass cassette tapes of so many Dead concerts that seem to contain the same songs in altered places, there’s a magic spontaneity to each singular cassette tape, one that only The Grateful Dead (formerly known as The Warlocks) could conjure.
Long Strange Trip is split into six sections that all clock in right under four hours once adjoined. Unlike most typical historical documentaries that track a band’s legacy, Amir Bar-Lev chooses to section off each specific chapter as a distinct exploration of a singular theme that the Dead was composed by instead of looking at the band’s lifespan in simple chronological order that analyzes the band’s highlights. For example, there’s an episode entirely devoted to the roadies and another to the chaotic horde of Deadheads that surrounded every stadium the band played at. Amir Bar-Lev understands the band’s significance goes way beyond their personal achievements and is actually found among the people the band touched. As stated so beautifully in the doc, the band dissolved their ego with acid and their sole purpose to the world is to live, making each and every concert a singular sacrificial demonstration of our transcendental selves.
The enormity of The Grateful Dead phenomenon is one of the things that makes them to hard to grasp, projecting them as musical deities instead of a group of humans playing phenomenal humans. The fact that Jerry Garcia was considered to be a prophet is delved into, but what Bar-Lev excels in is demystifying the Dead in order to remind us that they’re still humans. In its ultimately tragic conclusion, Bar-Lev chooses to focus on the haunting fame that assaulted Garcia, as crowds of fans imprisoned him in hotel rooms and hung onto every word he uttered because they believed him to be a prophet for their generation. Long Strange Trip, as undeniably exhilarating and illuminating as it is, is in the end a heartbreaking tale of a human launched into the position of a God and feeling completely alienated by the very alienation of the human elements on which his philosophy was built.
Long Strange Trip is a fascinating look at one of the most complex bands of all time, one that plunges you into the mythos of the Dead and facilitates the comprehension of the band by humanizing its components. It’s not that the quality of the film that justifies Long Strange Trip being a four hours, but it’s The Grateful Dead themselves that deserve such a gargantuan exploration of their band, one whose influence is still felt today and probably will be felt for eons to come.