On Thursday, the new Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip premiered at movie theaters and iconic venues across the country ahead of its official June 2nd release via Amazon Prime. One such screening was at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado—a venue that the iconic original jam band made its debut at in July of 1978. Perhaps appropriate thematically for the film directed by Amir Bar-Lev that was to be premiered, the weather was unpredictable, shifting between clear skies and thunderstorms sporadically across the evening.
Before the official screening of the film, Great American Taxi performed a number of tunes by the Grateful Dead, with their set being paused temporarily during its middle due to lightning strikes on the horizon. However, the band and the attendees were prepared for the weather and not put off, and those who stayed were treated to a final number that saw over a dozen musicians from Colorado and beyond perform a heartfelt rendition of “Franklin’s Tower” to close out their performance and welcome in the movie (with a background of a double rainbow no less).
As for the movie itself, Long Strange Trip is broken into six acts of around forty minutes in length. While by no means comprehensive—the storied history of the Grateful Dead, both of the band and for the country’s culture at large, cannot be limited to a single film (or even multiple films)—the four-hour-long movie does its best at providing a glimpse into the band’s come-up as a social institution from its inception in the Bay Area to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. Woven throughout the movie is the motif of Frankenstein’s monster—an archetype important to Garcia throughout his life following the death of his father when he was a young boy and as a metaphor for the legendary guitarist and the band itself. With that said, the film similarly does not shy away from exploring the darker sides of the Grateful Dead institution, equally acknowledging the life and beauty the project brought forth in addition to some of the more negative and less publicized aspects of the band’s history, specifically in attention to the life and times of Jerry Garcia.
Long Strange Trip features multiple interviews across its duration with band members Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, who all were credited as executive producers on the film in addition to Martin Scorsese, in addition to interviews with Jerry’s daughter Trixie Garcia, band biographer Dennis McNally, lyricist Robert Hunter, Jerry’s girlfriend and later fiancee Barbara Meier, as well as a number of additional crew members, fans, and more. It walks viewers through the Grateful Dead’s roots as The Warlocks, and how the Acid Tests, Ken Kesey, and Jack Kerouac tied into the inception of the band in the 60’s. From there, the movie zigzags through the evolution of the band’s sound from its beginnings melding the conversational tone of bluegrass with electric instruments onward, in addition to addressing some of the various characters important to the band, including Pigpen McKernan and Brent Mydland, and standout moments, good and bad, during the group’s storied career.
As Long Strange Trip unfolds, it begins to take an increasingly and decidedly more somber tone, as we see the Grateful Dead gain immense popularity and the impact this has on the mystical figure that is Jerry Garcia. Following Jerry’s diabetic coma in 1986, a good-humored Garcia states in an interview, “They always love it when I don’t die,” before the film cuts to the band’s stadium return to adoring fans in 1987. This standout moment is heightened by references to the depressing fact that the increasingly isolated and depressed Garcia does not have his own “Grateful Dead”—an outlet that the adored guitarist can find solace, hope, and refuge in. It is tragic yet decidedly important, as Jerry tries to navigate his inherited role as a messiah-like figure to thousands of fans and to the members of his blood and band family, reminding viewers of the humanity of our larger-than-life famous heroes and the pressures we put on them for our own enjoyment. (Notably, at the Red Rocks screening, it was around this time that the skies began to dump torrential rain as some sort cosmic reiteration of this point.)
While many of the takeaways from the film may be heavyhearted, the film itself still does a good job of balancing these darker moments with the joyful ones. Laughter frequently abounded across the amphitheater at one-liners, lighthearted anecdotes, and glimpses of the Grateful Dead and its members’ many glorious moments. Long Strange Trip is definitely worth a watch for those who love the band, and even for those who don’t, with the massive and extensive undertaking offering an understanding of how the Grateful Dead became such an important cultural presence that ultimately forged the way for the music we love and continue to love today.