A couple months ago I journeyed to the Bryant Park Hotel in midtown Manhattan with a small group of aging reporters to watch the new Grateful Dead documentary, "Long Strange Trip." It opened in a weeklong limited release (New York and Los Angeles) this weekend.
The verdict: It's a very good four-hour movie that would have been a terrific slightly shorter movie, with a different ending.
Here's the good news: the first two hours are wonderful. If you're a fan of the Grateful Dead, you're going to be very happy. Ably directed by Amir Bar-Lev, with an executive producer credit to Martin Scorsese, the word obviously went out to the band and its extended family to raid the attics and bring out the photos and lost footage, much of it now 50 years old and more.
The result: hundreds of stills and even movies, some of which has never been seen before. There's beautiful photos of the band's early beginnings in San Francisco, lovingly explaining how bandleader Jerry Garcia's initial obsession with bluegrass and country got funneled through the rabbit hole of the nascent San Francisco scene to create their unique sound. There's even footage of the Summer of Love -- 50 years ago this summer! -- and a few clips of Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, who launched the Acid Tests that came to define the San Francisco hippie ethos.
Each of the band members -- bassist Phil Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (the first of many doomed keyboardists) -- are introduced and their contributions to the band (and relationship with Garcia) are explained.
Those of you who are not Deadheads, who were always baffled by the cult-like status the band achieved and who always loudly ask, "Why are these guys so damned famous?," this movie is unlikely to convert you, but you will understand why the band attracted such a following.
To put it simply: the Dead was arguably the first band to break free of the shackles of the studio album. The songs on the albums were mere templates for the band to explore their musical styles in a live setting. The Dead were not the only ones exploring extended improvisation -- the Allman Brothers were exploring similar territory in the late 1960s, and Cream had also pioneered concerts that featured long jams -- but the Dead perfected the rhythmic groove, the crossing of musical styles and the extended soloing that came to epitomize what was later called the "jam band."
And you see it: beautiful clips of the band playing extended jams, much of it shot very tight.
The extended soloing and exploration of the deep groove allowed the development of a special class of fan. I've written about this before: the Cult of the Dead had all the hallmarks of a mystery religion, with sacred rites, sacred drugs, ecstatic dancing and a mystical union with some vague Other, all representing a release, a liberation from civilization's stifling rules.
The film also makes clear that much of this happened without the Dead, that even on nights when they were clearly not in sync (and there were many) the fans showed up and continued the party.
Another important contribution the band made to music history -- technical innovations that greatly improved sound quality at live concerts -- is also shown during what was then said to be the final Dead concerts, a series of four shows at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in October 1974, a period when the group was visibly exhausted from years of touring.
But they had a surprise: A 600-speaker sound system that went straight to the roof of the ballroom, an assemblage later known as "The Wall of Sound."
I attended one of those shows as a gangly 18-year-old, newly moved to the Bay Area. The sound was so intense I remember my pants vibrating in sync with Phil Lesh's bass. It changed my life, and made me a Deadhead.
It was not, of course, the end of the Dead. After taking a break, the Dead began touring again in 1976. The film traces the Dead's rising status in the late 1970s -- despite very little in the way of album success -- and Garcia's long, slow descent into heroin addiction, diabetes and other complications which resulted in a heart attack and his death on Aug. 9, 1995, at age 53.
And here, unfortunately, the film changes direction, and becomes a meditation on a very familiar trope: The Doomed Rock Star. All Deadheads know Jerry's story: how he became trapped in his own persona, how the band got bigger even as he deteriorated, how he was the leader of the band but refused to lead the band, how he turned down entreaties from band members and even former girlfriends to help him. There is a value to explaining this to nonfans, but so much of the second half is taken up with this obsession that a casual viewer might think some kind of death cult exists around Jerry Garcia.
There's a bigger issue: not enough effort is made to place the band in a proper historic setting. The Grateful Dead was the band that launched a thousand bands, but there's not much about their continuing importance. I wanted more tribute -- or at least perspective -- from people and bands indebted to the Dead and the style of music they created, who would not exist without them: Phish, Blues Traveler, Black Crowes, Dave Matthews, or, hell, even the Disco Biscuits, there's dozens of them. But there was very little of that. The Dead float out there as a cult band that revolved around the sun that was Jerry Garcia, and when he went away, the band went away.
But they didn't. One wonders what the existing members think of the final hour of the movie — when it seem to imply the music -- and the band -- died when Garcia died.
But it didn't. Bassist Phil Lesh recently told Rolling Stone that the movie was "great as far as it goes, but it's not the whole story."
Indeed, the band went on. There was 1998's the Other Ones, consisting of Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and drummer Mickey Hart. There were two attempts at a reunion, one in 2003-2004, and then another in 2009, both of which ended acrimoniously, though the crowds showed up to party.
More successful was the late 2009 incarnation, known as Further, which added John Kadlecik from the Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra but left out drummer Bill Kreutzmann. John had one great virtue: he really did sound like Jerry, and when I saw them in December 2009 in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and again in November 2011 at Madison Square Garden, I closed my eyes and heard the band that supposedly had ceased to exist 14 years before.
And when I saw them in Chicago two years ago, for what was then billed as the Dead's final shows, Phish's Trey Anastasio ably stepped in and played many classic Dead songs. Deadheads debate whether Anastasio was really the best fit for the band, but no one disputes the very fine job John Mayer has done playing with them. When I saw them last June in Camden, New Jersey, (with ex-Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge replacing Phil Lesh) they opened the second set with "Playing in the Band," and I doubt there was a soul in the audience who would dispute that Garcia's spirit was very much there at that time.
Don't let these criticisms deter you from seeing the movie -- Deadheads are going to be passionately debating this film for a long time. Bar-Lev and his team should be given some kind of special award for just sifting through the archival mountain that exists around the Dead and assembling such visually arresting photo montages. And kudos to Amazon Studios for co-producing the movie.
While you're at it, pick up the three-CD set of the music, also from Amazon. Put on "China Cat Sunflower," a song the band often opened their second sets with (followed by "I Know You Rider," also here). This early, previously unreleased version was recorded in France in 1971, but even early on it shows all the lyricism, interplay between band members and just plain fine groove the Dead was able to establish on their best nights.
More on my 45-year relationship with the Dead here.