The music documentary has become a bedrock of the nonfiction form, producing some of its most memorable films: 1967’s Dont Look Back, about Bob Dylan, 1970’s Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones, and in just the past few years a couple of Oscar winners—20 Feet from Stardom, and Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary on the late Amy Winehouse.
This year, no fewer than 14 music-themed documentaries have qualified for Oscar consideration, including ones on Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, Clive Davis, Eric Clapton, John Coltrane, and the Grateful Dead.
“The film chooses storytelling over…completist historical consistency,” Bar-Lev tells Deadline. “There are many fans of the band who ask me, ‘Where the hell is Terrapin Station?’ Or, ‘How could you not deal with this keyboardist or that period?’ My answer is, I was first and foremost making a film, and the film has needs that a Wikipedia entry, for instance, doesn’t.”
To be sure, Dead performances make up a huge component of the film, but they’re used in the service of understanding Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s reluctant leader, and what the band was all about.
“When you get down into their history and who they were and the story behind it, you understand them as part of a continuum that includes Ken Kesey, and then before him, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg,” Bar-Lev says. “And if you get to that point, you’re looking at Thoreau and Whitman, and then also Eastern stuff like Taoism and Buddhism.”
The band’s origins—in the countercultural hotbed of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s—and its experimentation with LSD have been well documented before. Bar-Lev gained insight from fresh interviews with surviving band members Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann (drums) and others. And he sheds light on forces that shaped Garcia as an artist, especially a traumatic loss he suffered as a child.
“The story of Jerry Garcia, for me anyway, is a pretty challenging and compelling exploration of how humans deal with mortality. It’s about a guy who, as a five-year-old, basically sees his father die [in a drowning accident], and takes an approach to the notion of our mortality and the capriciousness of life and death that you wouldn’t expect most people to take,” the director observes. “He had an idea [that] actually living is a succession of individual moments. That’s the only thing that actually persists. Everything else evaporates. So he worked hard at having fantastic individual moments.”
That’s key to appreciating the Grateful Dead’s improvisatory approach to live performance—letting the music take them where it would. Those genius jam sessions on stage would earn the group an ardent following among fans who knew any given concert could release an ecstatic display of musical creativity.
The ‘Deadheads’ formed a nomadic tribe that turned love of the band into a lifestyle. Garcia, who remained remarkably consistent in his egalitarian approach to life, felt little impulse to impose discipline on anyone, whether it was the Deadheads or concert security.
“I think what is interesting and exemplary about Jerry is he might have disagreed with the thing—like, the way the Hells Angels [who provided security at some early events] were acting or the way people were gate-crashing—but he made a decision to try to lead by example and no other way,” Bar-Lev states. “And not enforce rules on people. Does the world work that way? No.”
The Garcia of Long Strange Trip struck me as a noble and tragic figure—a masterful musician burdened by a sense of obligation to keep touring, despite the toll it took on him, because the road show supported the livelihoods of so many people. And he had to fend off the veneration of awestruck fans who wanted to fasten the crown of messiah on his head.
“It comes down to integrity,” Bar-Lev says of Garcia’s unwillingness to assume the mantle of god, or even rock god.
Diabetic and addicted to drugs, Garcia died in a rehab facility in 1995 at age 53. Bar-Lev, who grew up in Berkeley, California, got to see Garcia and the Dead perform many times.
“It was really easy for me from early teens to go to shows right in my backyard—in Oakland and San Francisco, and even Berkeley,” he recalls.
Bar-Lev remains an admirer of what Garcia and the band represented.
“It’s American music in that it’s syncretic with all these different strains, just as we as a people come from all these different backgrounds,” he explains. “But it’s also American music in its radically democratic approach—that everybody was soloing at the same time, that they eschewed authority.”
Bar-Lev lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children. Long Strange Trip marks his seventh film.
“If there was just one film [I] could leave for the kids, what would it be? This is it. I just think there’s a lot of life lessons in this story,” Bar-Lev says. “These [band members] are a lot of imperfect people—Jerry obviously included—but whose lives and whose failures and successes have baked into them a lot of what I want my kids to understand about being in the world, being creative, being pluralistic, being adventurous.”