Grateful Dead Documentary 'Long Strange Trip' To Premiere In SF This Weekend

This Saturday, the SF International Film Festival (SFIFF) will showcase Long Strange Trip, a documentary about the Grateful Dead directed by Bay Area local Amir Bar-Lev.

Produced by Martin Scorsese, the film incorporates home movies, concert clips, brand-new interviews with surviving band and crew members, and never-before-seen footage of the Dead, highlighting the band's improvisational sound and its cult following.

And it doesn't shy away from the Dead's trials and tribulations with mind-altering substances, some of which occurred right here in SF. 

Photo: Ed Perlstein/Courtesy of 'Long Strange Trip'

Bar-Lev, who's been a Deadhead since he was 13 years old, told Hoodline that he wanted to explore the way the Dead handled “rock stardom.”

"[It] was something unique and special: they were kind of like anti-celebrities," said Bar-Lev, who's also directed acclaimed documentaries The Tillman Story and My Kid Could Paint That. "They really saw their relationship with their fans as a partnership. They didn’t come on stage with a set list, they didn’t hype up the crowd with pre-canned stage patter, and they never played a song the same way twice. They explored the music rather than performed it.”

Long Strange Trip includes interviews with well-known Deadheads, including Senator Al Franken, journalist Nick Paumgarten, and Cole Valley-based writer Steve Silberman, award-winning author of "Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity," co-producer of Grateful Dead box set, "So Many Roads," and co-author of popular Deadhead tome Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads

Silberman, who's been a Deadhead since the age of 14, has attended roughly 300 Dead shows. A Haight/Cole Valley resident since the early '80s, he recalls a time when the band was so popular in the neighborhood that the Haight & Clayton post office was regularly mobbed around mail-order time for tickets.

Every time the band rolled through to play the Greek Theater or Kezar Stadium, "the Haight would be sort of taken over by Deadheads," Silberman said. "Hippies would be carbo-loading at [now-closed restaurant] All You Knead, everybody would be coming down or getting ready to go up, and you could really feel like you were living in the home base of where the Dead were born.”

Steve Silberman (right) and his husband Keith Karraker attended their last Grateful Dead show at Shoreline Amphitheatre on June 2nd, 1995. | Photo: Courtesy of Steve Silberman

Long Strange Trip's runtime clocks in at a hefty three hours and 58 minutes, but Silberman said that despite having now seen the film six times, he hasn't once been bored by it. 

The film's “light and joyous” opening showcases how the band came together,. “You know, these kind of beatnik weirdos, down the Peninsula—they find each other, realizing they’d finally found their tribe, and they made incredible music together." 

"Jerry Garcia was really the primary spark that got the whole Grateful Dead going," he said. "He always denied and dismissed it, but it’s undoubtedly true after you see the film, because of what the band members say.”

Mickey Hart at a free concert in the Haight, March 3rd, 1968. | Photo:  © Jim MarShall Photography LLC, All Rights Reserved/Courtesy of 'Long Strange trip'

But Garcia's heroin addiction took its toll, as did the huge crowds of ticketless revelers who showed up to party outside the Dead's late-'80s shows.

“The peaceful situation that once surrounded the Dead had become hard to sustain,” Silberman said, noting that while Bar-Lev doesn't flinch from showcasing the isolating effect that heroin had on Garcia, he also doesn’t sensationalize it or turn it into some “freak show.”

"Jerry was an incredibly awake, alert, hilarious, friendly guy with a ton of different interests, including filmmaking, but the sheer magnitude of being Jerry Garcia and the expectations that were projected onto him from the audience made it impossible to even leave his hotel room," he said.

“For someone who was as sensitive as Jerry was, it became a terrible trap, so he used heroin as a buffer to deal with all that stuff.”

Jerry Garcia. | Photo: Roberto Rabanne/courtesy of 'Long Strange Trip'

Silberman said he thinks the main point of Long Strange Trip is the Grateful Dead's commitment to a vision of music that was completely dynamic and interactive—based on improvisation, not in playing the hits.

He describes the band as a living organism, one that the audience was as much a part of as the band members were. And for several decades, that organism had a great time.

“For me, it was a wonderful way to grow up,” he said.

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Grateful dead documentary long strange trip to premiere in sf this weekend