SXSW 2017: Interview with “Long Strange Trip” Director Amir Bar-Lev

The Grateful Dead is one of the most legendary bands of all time, yet one of the most unlikely success stories in rock and roll history. They have been notoriously opposed to publicity and fame and just want to let their music speak for itself. “Long Strange Trip” is an intimate look into the band with never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews from director Amir Bar-Lev. Bar-Lev’s directorial credits include “Fighter” (2001), “My Kid Could Paint That” (2007), the Emmy Award–winning “The Tillman Story” (2010) and “Happy Valley” (2014).

We chatted with Bar-Lev during SXSW on how he was able to wrangle one of the most famous bands in history into doing their first full-length documentary.

Jerry Garcia appears in “Long Strange Trip” by Amir Bar-Lev, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Roberto Rabanne.

Catherine: How do you get involved with “Long Strange Trip” and telling the Grateful Dead’s story?

Amir: I have always wanted to tell this story. It’s been my ‘white whale.’ It took eleven years to get off the ground, and then took us another four years to make. No one has been able to make this film before me because the band is, on the one hand, admirably disinterested in publicity, but also the Grateful Dead as an idea is always supposed to be evolving. The story isn’t over, in a sense. Everybody inside the Grateful Dead has a healthy amount of skepticism around preserving the Grateful Dead in amber and freezing it for all of time.

When we were going through the archival, I noticed a reoccurring motif: very few people are able to let the camera live in their space as a disinterested, non-participatory objective. That includes the fans. Every time we would watch footage of crews dispatched to document Dead Heads, they’re always trying to pull the camera crew into whatever fun is being had at any given time. It often had spectacularly funny results, for instance there’s a great piece of archival in our film of a fantastic documentary crew following the Grateful Dead around in 1970 on their first trip to Europe. The cinematography is fantastic for the first few days. The film was shot on 16mm and looks like those terrific cinema vérité music docs from the era; like “Don’t Look Back.” When the band finally takes the stage after a few days in London, the cinematography suddenly doesn’t look so great. You start to see that the film crew have abandoned their post and are filming themselves instead of the band — and the whole thing dissolves into chaos. They’re too high to film.

The Grateful Dead were always interested in breaking down distinctions: the distinction of fan and band, the distinction of film crew and rock star. In fact some of the band started out as fans themselves, so the line between the people on the stage and the rest of us was blurred whenever possible.

Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh appear in “Long Strange Trip” by Amir Bar-Lev, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Andrew Kent.

Catherine: How were you able to convince the Grateful Dead to take place in this documentary given their lack of interest in promoting themselves?

Amir: Honestly, I wore them down, I don’t think I ever convinced them. It’s the rope-a-dope. I stuck around longer than all the other filmmakers who were trying to, because I’m a huge fan and I’m stubborn, and I have nothing better to do.

Catherine: How long was the whole filming and editing process?

Amir: Three to four years, including editing for over two years. The film developed its own editing aesthetic in part by one of the leading editors, John Walter who is a director himself. John has always been an admirer of Glenn Gould’s radio documentaries, in which Gould would let a lot of people talk at the same time using a mixing board. John had the idea that we could do something similar with the film.

The other editor, Keith Fraase is an Austin guy and worked with Terrence Malick a lot, so he has that beautiful Terrence Malick sensibility which we also kind of paid homage to in the film. So lucky me, I was able to steal from Glenn Gould and Terrence Malick. It’s not only a long film it’s a deep film. There’s a lot going on in any given moment. We had 11,000 stills to work, for instance, so we were able to do a retinal onslaught of sorts. We impart a lot of information in a short amount of time. Well, eventually it becomes a long amount of time.

Catherine: How did the band feel about the final cut of the film?

Amir: I’d have to say frankly that the band just moves forward, the band doesn’t look backwards. I hope they are happy with it and I think they are happy with it, they’ve said so, but it’s not as though they’re the type of people who declare victory and want to do nothing more to add to their story. They just continue moving on forward.

“Long Strange Trip” will premiere on Amazon Prime Video May 26, 2017.

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