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WOODSTOCK, DAY TWO
Once upon a time...at Yasgur's farm (8/16a)
RAINMAKERS: THEY CONTROL THE WEATHER
This is no ordinary doorstop. (8/15a)
SONG REVENUE CHART: DOG DAYS
But things will liven up soon. (8/16a)
A PRESEASON
HITS LIST
The biz is getting its game face on. (8/16a)
GRAMMY CHEW: COMING IN
UNDER THE WIRE
More speculation over lox and bagels (8/16a)
HEAT!
Seriously, we can't take off any more clothes at the office.
DOLDRUMS!
Nothing doing.       
LUNCH!
Well, what do YOU want?      
VACATION!
Badly needed.     
Critics' Choice
LONG STRANGE TRIP: A ROLLER-COASTER JOURNEY WITH THE DEAD
5/23/17

By Erik Himmelsbach

Perhaps it was by design, but Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s expansive documentary of the Grateful Dead, feels a lot like a Dead show. For starters, the film is long: four hours and a minute, divided into six acts, with an intermission at the mid-point. Beyond these superficial similarities, Long Strange Trip takes its audience on a roller coaster ride not dissimilar to the live Dead experience: transcendent peaks accompanied by long dirge-like passages that make perfect bathroom breaks. But in the end, you feel nothing but ecstasy.

For card-carrying Deadheads, even those who think they know all there is to know, Long Strange Trip is a revelation–a holy grail of rare footage, revealing interviews with band members and groovy, non-linear storytelling. For the rest of the world, the doc begins streaming on Amazon Prime 6/2, enabling less obsessed fans to watch this all-encompassing film in shorter bursts.

The film plays theaters one night only on Thursday with weeklong runs in New York and Los Angeles.

The Dead’s story has been told again and again, but Bar-Lev’s improvisational, non-linear storytelling crams a lot into four hours, leaving us wanting more. He tells the story through the prism of Jerry Garcia, from his tragic childhood–rooted in the drowning death of his father when he was just five–and follows his journey through his Palo Alto coffeehouse days, where he first teamed up with songwriting partner Robert Hunter and became a bluegrass ace, his jug band with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, onto The Warlocks and the Dead.

The first half focuses on Garcia and the band’s journey through the 1960s and early 70s, the collective improvisation that overtook the group both onstage and in life, some great footage from their first trip to Europe and comic relief from both former Warner Bros. honcho Joe Smith, who plays the long-suffering exec who can’t control the crazy Bay Area hippies, and Sam Cutler, an acerbic Brit who signed on as the Dead’s tour manager in 1970 after leading the Rolling Stones on the road. Cutler was ostensibly brought aboard to organize the chaos, but he left after four years, waving a white flag of surrender. Bonus points for the priceless story about the Dead entourage dosing the set of the TV series Playboy After Dark during the band’s 1969 appearance.

Beside the band, roadie Steve Parish provides poignant commentary about the family/communal/utopian culture surrounding the band, and, during a segment on Deadheads, Sen. Al Franken discusses his obsession with “Althea” and why the 1980 Nassau Coliseum version is the best ever.

In spite of the enlightenment­–the Wall of Sound PA system, the Acid Tests, the trip to Egypt, Long Strange Trip is also shrouded with at least a little darkness–the deaths of Pigpen, Brent Mydland and a handful of others in the crew along the way.

As Long Strange Trip progresses, it becomes less about the band than about Garcia’s long, sad spiral. As the Dead grew in the 1980s, the more he turned inward, mostly through drugs, often heroin.

The band had become a fast moving machine with dozens on the payroll whose livelihood depended the wheels turning on the road. Forward momentum came at the expense of Garcia’s health. With a hit record in the late '80s, the Grateful Dead became a stadium act, and Deadheads came to view the guitarist as a messianic figure. Add to that a parking lot scene that became diluted by frat-boy types who didn’t grasp the band’s essential message and just wanted to party and mess shit up.

It wasn’t what Garcia had signed up for. He was looked upon to lead, but Garcia didn’t believe in leaders. He was in the band to have fun, and it was becoming a drag, man. To deal with the pressure, he checked out, keeping those he loved at arm’s distance, until it was too late.

While there’s a bit to quarrel with–key moments in the band’s history are glossed over or ignored, while others are beaten into the ground–Long Strange Trip nevertheless mind-blowingly captures the essence of the Grateful Dead, and of a generation.