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Why a new four-hour documentary about the Grateful Dead took 14 years to make

Meet director Amir Bar-Lev, who made “Long Strange Trip” and then sold it to Amazon.

Peter Simon

Amir Bar-Lev wants you to know one thing about his new film “Long Strange Trip,” a new documentary about the Grateful Dead: It is not a concert film.

“Nobody's indifferent to the Grateful Dead,” Bar-Lev said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “When I was in high school, there were the people who loved the Grateful Dead, and there were the people who were super-annoyed by the people who loved the Grateful Dead.”

“You don’t have to love the Dead to love this movie,” he added. “You don’t even have to like the Dead. I think it’s a great story.”

Bar-Lev started working on the film in 2003 by cold-emailing the band’s inertial-by-design organization. More than a decade later, after signing Martin Scorsese on as an executive producer, he was able to begin work on the film in earnest, with access to the Dead’s original studio music and most of the surviving members.

“It’s never that they bought into my vision or anything like that,” he said. “I don’t think they really care about there being a documentary, just like they don’t care about their public persona or their publicity so much. That’s to their credit.”

You can listen to the new podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify (mobile only), TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

Amazon Studios bought “Long Strange Trip” ahead of its premiere at Sundance earlier this year. It debuts in movie theaters tomorrow, May 26, and then will start streaming on Amazon Prime Video next week.

Bar-Lev said he wants people to see the movie in theaters if they can because of how much work went into the theatrical surround-sound mix. But he’s also glad to have a means of reaching a mass audience, thanks to Amazon.

“To the degree that we’re allowed to make films that aspire to be art more than they aspire to be mass consumption, it’s great,” he said. “If that means that maybe it’s not playing in every multiplex against whatever stupid thing Hollywood’s doing, but rather has to be seen on more laptops, it’s a good trade-off for me.”

There’s a tension between today’s gadget-obsessed culture and the legacy of the Dead, however. Bar-Lev said “Long Strange Trip” is, in part, a reaction to how tech has hurt our ability to appreciate the present moment.

“I have kids and I worry about them,” Bar-Lev said. “When I go to a concert and I see that everyone has their phone up ... This is about a certain sense that ‘I’m here but I’m not here. I’m here, but I’m also the center of attention [on] Instagram or Facebook or whatever. I’m a little mini-celebrity.’”

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