The Dark Side of the Grateful Dead: Inside the New Doc 'Long Strange Trip'

How a four-hour look at the history of the Dead finds the band opening up about the music, drugs and Jerry's death like never before

How 'Long Strange Trip' – the definitive new four-hour doc on the Grateful Dead – finds the band opening up about the fans, drugs and Jerry's death. Credit: Peter Sanders/Rex

For Mickey Hart, watching the upcoming grateful dead documentary Long Strange Trip was both moving and unsettling. "It's charming and it's heartfelt," says the drummer. "But it's sad in some ways. It's not a date movie. I wouldn't take my wife to see it."

The four-hour film (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will hit select theaters on May 26th; it begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting June 2nd) is the first comprehensive documentary to tell the story of the Dead. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev (who previously directed The Tillman Story, about football player-turned-U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman) and executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, it does not shy away from the dark forces that led to the death of frontman Jerry Garcia. At one point, the surviving members theorize what they could have done as he slipped into heroin addiction. "It shows you how lonely it is when people want to pick you apart and give you no peace just because they love you to death," says Hart. "It's kind of tragic."

Long Strange Trip charts the Dead's journey from tireless Haight-Ashbury rehearsals to multimillion-dollar touring enterprise. There are sections dedicated to how record-company demands caused them to throw up their hands and become mainly a touring act ("One of the best things the Grateful Dead ever did," says bassist Phil Lesh), and how they made their famous "wall of sound" PA system. "We were able to treat [the film] as the Dead treated music," says Bar-Lev, "and improvise and go where it took us."

"A lot of the stories in the film are fairly dark, but there's a light that shines above all of that. [It's] counterbalanced by the music itself."-Bob Weir

Bar-Lev grew up a Deadhead in 
the Bay Area. He first approached the Dead in 2003 about a documentary, but he didn't start filming until 11 years later. Scorsese was the catalyst: After he ran into drummer Bill Kreutzmann at a party, the band finally agreed to interviews. In one highlight, guitarist Bob Weir even drives Bar-Lev to a local club to ambush the reclusive lyricist Robert Hunter, who answers only one question. Garcia talks a lot too; in one newly uncovered interview, he relates the culture of the Dead to Jack Kerouac: "That's what motivates the audience," he says. "The spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure in America at large."

The Dead provided Bar-Lev with boxes of unreleased material, including footage of them working out harmonies for "Candyman" in 1970. ("I was surprised – I remembered none of it," says Weir.) There's also unseen footage of their 1974 "farewell" concerts, including a burned-out Garcia complaining about the audience. "What should we do?" he grumbles backstage. "Go out and kill ourselves? We've had it, man."

Garcia's struggles – with fame and the pressure of leading the Dead corporation – are a major theme. His daughter Trixie talks about the toll the band took on family life; footage of Garcia scuba diving in Hawaii reveals the routes he took to find peace. His ex-girlfriend Barbara Meier recalls a reunion with Garcia in the Nineties, when he fantasized about quitting touring. She also remembers a call she got from a road manager after Garcia had relapsed: "Jerry's cool – he can handle this," she remembers being told.

The bandmates weren't entirely happy with the film. Weir says that they all sat down with Bar-Lev after Sundance, asking him to incorporate more material from "after Jerry checked out." ("Based on our conversations with the band, I made sure the film points to the future," says the director.) But Weir acknowledges that the darkness "is counterbalanced by the music itself. A lot of the stories in the film are fairly dark, but there's a light that shines above all of that." 

Phil Lesh's Terrapin Family Band will team with Bob Weir for a special performance of the Grateful Dead's 'Terrapin Station' at Lockn' Fest.