On this episode of Recode Media, Peter Kafka takes a long strange trip with Amir Bar-Lev, the director of a four-hour Grateful Dead documentary called “Long Strange Trip.” The movie was screened in theaters and then streamed on Amazon. He explains on the podcast why this movie made by hardcore Deadheads is actually for non-Deadheads, and how the message of the Dead is relevant to today.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. We’re coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network. I am recording this at the Vox Podcast Media studios, it’s very exciting. It’s a new studio for us.
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One other thing. I’m talking to you now from Vox Media, but we recorded this next episode over in Austin at South by Southwest back in March. I’m talking to Amir Bar-Lev, he’s a director of a new documentary about the Grateful Dead called “Long Strange Trip.” It is a long movie, it’s four hours, but it’s a good four hours. You should go watch it. It’s in theaters now, if you’re listening to this, May 26th. It’ll be on Amazon Prime video, so you can watch it at home in whatever chunk of time you want to watch it in, starting June 2nd, so check it out. See it on screen, and then you can listen to us talk about it now.
We recorded this session in Kara Swisher’s hotel room, if you want the full details. And if you want more details than that, you should come find me or my sister, we’ll fill you in. Enjoy.
I’m here with Amir Bar-Lev, director of “Long Strange Trip.” Did I get the title right?
Amir Bar-Lev: Yes, you did.
I always try.
Although it was not going to be “Long Strange Trip” for quite some time.
It was going to be?
I’m not good at naming my films.
You just called it “Untitled Grateful Dead Documentary”?
It was called “Untitled” for a long while, but that was never contemplated as the final title. Then I had a lot of too-smart-for-my-own-good titles that were oblique, and the people who bought it correctly pointed out that those titles wouldn’t be interesting on buses and things like that.
So let’s pull back and fill people in. This is a documentary about the Grateful Dead, hence the long strange trip. The people who bought it are Amazon.
And they’ll be streaming it this spring.
After a short theatrical.
Oh, so you will be able to see it in theaters. So you’ll either be hearing this when you can see it in theaters or when you can stream it on Amazon, or both.
I watched it, it’s great.
Thanks, did you watch it in a theater?
I want you to see it again. We did a lot of work on the 7:1 mix.
I mean it’s okay, it’s a long film. You don’t have to see it again. But your listeners should know that we sound mixed this freaking movie for more than maybe any rock documentary has ever gotten. The Grateful Dead gave us their stems, which means they gave us the studio, the music broken into ... It’s studio isolated tracks. So you can take the tambourine from Cumberland Blues, and we created a score, and then we sent it around the 7:1 mix.
So when I was streaming it on my MacBook I was not getting the full experience.
You didn’t inhale.
But here’s the thing. The reason I streamed it on my MacBook instead of watching the screening you had last night is, it’s four hours long.
I know. People are coming, they’re seeing it in four hours. It has an intermission. I hope, and I’m hearing, that it doesn’t feel long in the theaters. I hope it plays both ways. But it’s a 50-year story, and we tried at the beginning to make a film that ruthlessly kind of cut you around to different places. My films tend to be pretty short.
This film, you wanted to feel at the end like you had been with them for 50 years. And I think it works.
So here’s the best compliment I can give it: I am not a Grateful Dead guy. I like the movie.
That’s high praise, and I appreciate you saying that. And it’s you who we were making it for.
I wanted to ask about that, because it seems like it could go either way. I’m guessing, can I call you a Deadhead, or a Dead fan?
You can call me a Deadhead, and the producers of the film are mostly Deadheads, but then I populated the creative team with non-Deadheads so that we made sure to make a film for me and for you.
No, I really appreciate it.
But nobody’s indifferent to the Grateful Dead, you know, and I think we’re probably around the same age.
When I was in high school there were the people who loved the Grateful Dead and then there were people who were super annoyed by the people who loved the Grateful Dead.
Yeah, I was in that camp. I’m out of that camp now, I just don’t have the affinity for them.
But I sort of get intellectually why they’re interesting, and that was the cool thing about your movie. It explained to me musically why they’re interesting, historically why they’re interesting, pop culture why they’re interesting. And then one of the things I didn’t really appreciate until I saw your movie was, when I became aware of them in high school and my cool friends thought they were lame, I didn’t realize that was really the first time they were mainstream.
Yeah, they didn’t have a hit until the late 80s.
And you know, my wife was a punk when we were teenagers and I was a hippie, and there was always that divide. And I didn’t get punk when I was growing up. I thought it was about anger.
Where did you grow up?
In Berkeley. Good punk scene there.
I know, I missed it. And then I lived in D.C. for a while, which also has a great punk scene. But I didn’t get it, I was turned off by it. And in later years, through my wife mostly, I came to understand that I missed something great. And I wanted the film to be a punk rock film, not a hippie film.
So, it’s pretty successful at that, right?
And it is, I think it’s a punk rock story. I mean, these are sort of stupid categories, but in so far as they’re useful, the Grateful Dead was loved to death.
So explain the history of the film. Why did you want to make it? When did you decide you wanted to make it? You’ve made a professional documentary before.
I wanted to make the film ... So I made my first film, it came out in 2001, and then I really decided that I wanted my next film to be this film. And I actually had some initial interactions with the org ... I cold emailed them. I didn’t really have any special connections.
You called up the Grateful Dead Org.
I emailed them.
And it was 2003. And then I actually happened to meet pretty much the nicest, sanest guy in the organization. And because he’s so sane, I’m going to try to be delicate about this, but you know the Grateful Dead organization is infamously inertial? And that’s by design, you know? I think they didn’t want it to be a top-down hierarchy. They invited all kinds of different people with different agendas in and ...
And so not a lot gets done.
Not a lot gets done. Not a lot gets decided. I happened to reach this guy, Alan Trist, who wrote me back. That says something right there, you know? And then watched my little film about two old Czech Jews drinking and talking about World War II ...
And that’s called?
That’s your first one?
Yeah. So I sent him that, and he said, “Well, you know, you should move forward.” And I thought to myself, “I can’t believe it’s that easy!” And it wasn’t that easy.
So in 2003 you start ...
No, 2003 is when I started trying to make it, and then another 11 years went by before we really started making it.
So you made this movie with their cooperation?
When do they sign on and what did you need to do?
That was like four years ago.
What did you need to do to get them over the line? In the movie, like you said, they gave you the music ...
It’s that inertial thing. I mean, attaching Marty Scorsese was a useful thing in that regard. And then I also got a team of really great producers involved who sort of convinced them ... It’s never that they bought into my vision or anything like that. 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, you know? That’s to their credit, I think.
Was there anything they were worried about talking about? This is pretty warts and all, right? There’s a lot of ...
To be frank about it ...
Jerry Garcia’s drug use.
No, they didn’t ... They gave us creative control.
“Go ahead, do what you want.”
They didn’t ask for a final cut?
And have you asked them about it since?
I saw the film with them at Sundance, which was a few months ago. And they sort of gave me grudging praise or whatever, you know? But it’s okay. The film is ... The story is not about them. It’s about the Grateful Dead. And the Grateful Dead was them and us.
It really was. That’s how it was conceived.
That’s I think the part I liked the most, it’s divided up in chapters, and there’s a chapter on the Deadheads.
Yeah, that was your favorite part?
Yeah, because it’s also the part that I can identify with the most, right? Except the ... I like the music and all ...
But sort of getting a sense of who those people are. Al Franken’s one of them.
And reminding people of that relationship they had with their fans was particularly unique. It still really is. There are a few people who sort of follow that model, but that’s pretty particular.
Our story starts when Jerry’s 6 and he sees “Frankenstein” and it terrifies him. And he says, “It was the most ... One of those seminal moments in my life.” And when he said that we kind of leaned in to try and figure out how’s that possible and how’s that important to us as storytellers? And he says, “Frankenstein, that monster, scared the wits out of me. And I made a decision to befriend that fear. I wanted to embrace that fear and to let it be a part of me.”
This is all my own conjecture, but I feel like he had an idea that what was not him was to be brought closer, not pushed away. It was a radical, pluralistic idea. And it carried forth into the way the Grateful Dead band was put together and he could have put together ... They were all sort of in a way the wrong person for the position. The bass player never played bass ... The rhythm guitar ...
That’s very punk.
Oh yeah, totally. The rhythm guitarist doesn’t play rhythm guitar like anybody else. And so on and so forth. And then there were fans that came along that said, “Hey, can we be in the band?” And he said, “Yes.” So it’s sort of like the Grateful Dead always did the wrong thing on a certain level and it was exactly the right thing.
Right. And then later on they let people pirate their music ...
Yeah, they let people, quote on quote “steal their music,” which drew even more fans. You know, so at every turn they did the inclusive thing.
So why make this movie? And if the audience is people like me who weren’t Deadheads, what’s important about the band? What makes them worth a four-hour documentary?
I mean, there’s lots. You know, I have kids, and I worry about them. When I go to a concert and I see that everybody has their phone up and it’s like thinking about not just the future. Let’s say they use the word “nice cameras” and everybody was documenting them, which is kind of what I do for a living, so I shouldn’t necessarily be judgmental, but this is about a certain sense that, like, I’m here, but I’m not here. I’m here, but I’m also the center of attention in this certain medium, Instagram or Facebook, whatever. I’m a little mini celebrity. So that’s a way of not being present in a moment. And that’s obviously gone completely nuts in our culture. And so I think the Grateful Dead ... When I think about why I did this film, it’s for my kids, in a way.
I don’t want to sound grandiose, but my daughter is 7 years old. She saw the Deadhead section the other day and she said to me, “Why were all those people dancing around naked?” And I said, “Well, you love to dance around naked.” And she goes, “Yeah, but is it okay for grownups to do that?” And I said, “Yeah.” She goes, “Then why don’t you go into work tomorrow naked?” And I opened up this great conversation about punk and counterculture and culture, and things that I want my kids to think about, you know? Much more than I want them to have their nose buried in their fucking iPhones all the time.
Although they may watch this thing on an iPhone, it may go both ways. Or a MacBook.
I hope they don’t, you know, but I have to understand that things are complicated.
I mean, look, the guys who bought it at Amazon are Deadheads. I mean, obviously there was a bunch of people who made the decision. So the guys on point are Deadheads. And I feel really pleased about Amazon’s reach, and that this film, which I think, I hope, is somewhat subversive, is going to be spread all over the world. It makes me happy.
I want to ask you about subversion. There’s a part in there where, again in the Deadhead section, it says ... You know, this stuff sort of takes off in the ’80s. Reagan is president. Reagan runs on an anti-’60s platform. The country votes him in, and basically the argument is the Deadheads are going to be the group of people saying, “No, no, no. We’re going to resist Reagan,” basically. And I thought ... Flashed to Trump, and thought ...
Do you think either there is going to be some version of that happening now, or do you think that makes the Dead newly relevant now? Is there some analog there?
Yes. I see that people are getting more engaged. I hope that there’s going to be kind of a backlash against the conformists, sort of jingoistic, sexist ...
That may show up in culture?
Yeah. I think so. I don’t pretend to understand how culture works and why things ... But if you think about the Beatniks, if you think about how many people were Beatniks, it’s very few people. It doesn’t take ... I think we tend to think in these sort of mass media terms because ...
Right, because everyone was a hippie in the ’60s, but they weren’t.
Yeah. You don’t need a lot of people. You need a couple good ones, I think. When my daughter saw the clip I just mentioned, she was seeing it at the Rubin Museum in New York, which is a Buddhist museum. And I was sitting there thinking ... And it’s all this gorgeous Buddhist art and stuff like that, and I have to say, I don’t think that museum would be there if it weren’t for Allen Ginsberg and Alan Watts. And a handful of people who ... And Kerouac and people like that, who were interested in Buddhism and were responsible in some ways for bringing it here. You know, there were others, right, but I mean they popularized it on a certain level, and then people like the hippies picked up on it, and down to me, you know. I studied religious studies because of Allen Ginsberg in a way, you know what I mean?
There’s your through line.
So there’s a through line. And there’s a continuum, you know, and I don’t pretend ... I don’t think the film is like ... I think the film ... I hope, my wildest dream is that the film is a tiny, tiny part of that continuum just in pointing people to the Grateful Dead, just as the Grateful Dead were interested in pointing to the Beats, and so on and so forth.
This is great. I have more questions, but first we’re going to hear from one of our sponsors. We’ll be right back.
We’re back here with Amir Bar-Lev, director of "Long Strange Trip," which you can maybe see in the theater. You can definitely see it via Amazon.
Is this the first movie you sold to Amazon?
Yeah? So how does that process work? What’s different about making a documentary in 2017, and you’ve been doing this for basically 15, 20 years?
Well, making a documentary is always ... Making a documentary is changes constantly. And I’ve been super lucky in my career. This is my seventh film. Nearly every film I’ve been involved with I’ve had really supportive, creative executives involved in, who have allowed me to make the films that I want. And my films ... Listen, I’m not like some industry specialist, so I don’t know if I’m the right person to speak to this. But 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. If that means that maybe it’s not playing in every multiplex up against whatever stupid thing Hollywood’s doing, but rather has to be seen on more laptops, it’s a good trade-off for me.
It seems like first Netflix and now Amazon have decided, “Oh, documentaries are something that there’s a big audience for. We can buy them, they’re cheaper than buying a Brad Pitt movie.”
They’re doing those as well now. And it seems like if you’re a full-time documentarian that’s a good thing. There’s a new market for this stuff.
So when you started this thing four years ago, were you thinking, “We’re going to end up selling this to a streaming service”?
No, gosh no. I don’t look at things that way. I just try and find the supports that I can be improvisational in the way that the film goes. And actually, our initial thought was that we were making a 90-minute film. And along the way, you know, there were longer films that came out. There was O.J., this is the biggest ...
It’s the seven-hour one?
Yeah. When we heard that that was doing all right, because that was at Sundance ...
It’s an ESPN series.
Yeah. We followed behind that. When people started considering that a film, as I do, it was great for me because I was able to make a case. Like, “Hey, people have a tolerance for longer films.”
Right, so that was the ESPN ... ESPN ran it as a TV series. They ran it in seven chunks or whatever it was.
But it just won an Oscar, right?
Considering it’s a seven-hour film. And that gave you the freedom or the impetus to say ...
It gave me some wiggle room for sure. I don’t know, I think this thing wants to be consumed either way. I think that seeing it in an audience has its own benefits, as I mentioned. The sound really wants that. But seeing it at home is also great. Because, yeah, it’s long. I’m not laboring under any delusions. You know, when I do a Q&A for this film, people are tired and I understand that. I try and make it quick.
There’s a Q&A following the four-hour movie?
There’s always a Q&A. But I have to say, so it’s only been shown maybe less than 10 times so far. Up at Sundance somebody proposed to somebody else before one of the screenings. They drove in eight hours from like Denver to Park City.
And then got up on the mike and proposed. And then when we saw it in Salt Lake City, there was like ... Several times you’d hear somebody actually kick in their smuggled bottle of booze. I felt like there were people on ...
Probably smelled some things in the air.
I don’t ... You see, now with vapes or whatever and edibles, people can ... It seemed like people were treating it like a concert a little bit.
That makes sense.
It’s not a concert film, I mean, it has an arc. But I’m happy because people ...
Yeah, that was one of my trepidations going in. I was like, “I don’t love the Dead really enough to watch a concert movie.”
I want your listeners to know that you don’t have to love the Dead to love this movie. In fact, you don’t even have to like the Dead. I think it’s a great story, and I consider it a film among my films that’s about some of the themes I’m interested in. And if you think that ... Sorry, I’m not going to say if you like my films then you’ll like it ... You know, it’s a great story.
Were you looking at other bidders besides Amazon? Were you thinking maybe I won’t stream this? Maybe I’ll go some other way?
Sure. We were open to all that stuff. But the Amazon guys, as I said, they’re like really ... They get the film and they’re promoting it in a way that I’m really happy with. Yeah, they made us a great offer.
And you’ll still have it in theaters, so you’re up for awards, and so you get it sort of both ways. Do they have any other input, or just a finished product and they’re going to distribute it?
I’ll just tell you frankly. They were not meant to have any ... Contractually, we retain final cut, but they had freaking good notes.
Which were offered, you know, “Take it or leave it.” And the film benefited from them a lot.
What’s an example of a good Amazon note?
I mean, I should just say the guys’ names even. Joe Lewis and Dan Seligmann, particularly this guy Dan Seligmann, who I didn’t know from Adam. You know, but he’s a kid my age ... A kid ... A guy my age.
A middle-aged gentleman.
A middle-aged guy like me, right. He just came in and saw ... You know, we had been editing it for a really long time, and I have an amazing edit team, but he’s going to lose sight after a while ...
Right. Sitting there for four years.
Yeah. So it was great to get this fresh pair of eyes. And he came in and gave me some, I think film-saving notes, you know? I do that, though. I’m always trying to show it to people I trust to gut-check myself.
Was there anyone you wanted to interview for this that you couldn’t land?
I’ve been asked that a couple times. Only here, for some weird reason. I don’t know why.
Because it’s a stock interview question?
I keep answering “Mountain Girl,” who was Jerry’s second wife. But I’m sort of ... I want to be sort of psychedelic about my answer. I don’t feel it was meant to be, you know? She didn’t want to be in the film. I heckled her for a long time to do it.
The main reason I thought about it is the lyricist.
Hunter, right. So there’s a segment where everyone’s explaining how you can’t get this guy to talk to you.
He’s obtuse, he doesn’t want to talk about what he does.
And then you go in the car to see him and you’re sort of waiting for this big confrontation.
And it looks like you got him on camera for like 15 seconds, basically telling you to fuck off. But you got him.
Yeah. I mean, if you think about it from a Taoist perspective, you know, which I think the film tries to have, it’s exactly right. He was really the white whale of the film. He was the guy who kept saying no and I couldn’t imagine the film without him. And I begged him and then I begged people around him to beg him on my behalf. Finally, I resorted to basically ambushing him with the help of Bob Weir, who while we were interviewing him kind of made the mistake of asking me if I had ...
Yeah, he puts down his pipe, he’s like ...
It’s not his pipe, it’s a mate.
I don’t know what a mate is.
You’re not a west coaster.
You see, in Berkeley, we sip this ... It’s kind of like ...
It’s better if we sipped a pipe.
I don’t freaking know what it is, but it’s like some kind of a tea.
Yeah, it’s like a Peruvian tea or something that he was sipping. It’s not a pipe.
He puts down his Peruvian tea and says, “We can text him or something.”
Yeah, and so we did that.
You get in the car and then at one point he says ... He knew you were coming, right?
And then you say now ...
Yeah. We tried to do that. So I knew the film was going to be roughly 75 percent archival. But I wanted whenever possible for it to come up from that journey through that past and feel like a present day film. So we would do these little scenes with people in order ... So like if there was a great piece of archival, we wanted to be with one of our characters when he got the great piece of archival out of the closet or whatever. Because I want people ... It helps me make the case for the relevance, so that you don’t feel like this is a journey ...
Right, you’ve got Nick Paumgarten from The New Yorker going through his tape collection.
Yeah. And we took that road trip with Bob Weir, and as you say we surprised Robert Hunter, and yeah.
That’s a very cool bit.
We’re going to take another quick break here so we can hear from our sponsors. Here’s my friend Lauren Good from the Verge.
I’m back with Amir Bar-Lev, the director of “Long Strange Trip.”
It seemed like maybe 10 years ago, I guess it was around the time of Napster, longer ago than that.
There was a sort of vogue where everyone was explaining why the Grateful Dead was this tech-progressive, intellectually business-progressive organization, and they were super smart because they were giving away their music and doing it all on tour. And you touch on that. Is your sense ...
I think that’s bullshit.
Yeah, I was curious about that.
Here’s what I think. Sam Cutler says it perfectly in the film. Sam Cutler was their tour manager from ’70 to ’74.
He’s the cranky Englishman.
He’s a cranky Englishman, and after ’74 he went off to ... He’s a gypsy. When we interviewed him he was living in a van here, but he normally lives in an RV in Australia. And he says something that I love and it relates to punk and culture in general. He says, “That’s how the mainstream works. It kind of loves you to death. They neuter a thing that threatens them by loving it to death.”
By celebrating it, right?
He’s talking about in the context of them becoming big enough to fill stadiums and having ...
Well, no. I think what he’s talking about is not just their popularity but their image in the popular imagination.
They’re a cuddly ice cream flavor.
They’re a cuddly ice cream flavor and Jerry’s like a happy hippie who means nobody any harm, he’s Santa Claus. That’s the way the culture neuters things that are a threat to it. I think that the whole notion that the Grateful Dead ...
By the way, South by Southwest, where the whole point is to sell stuff.
Totally. And the notion that the Grateful Dead were brilliant businessmen is so far off the mark, you know what I mean? What they were is something genuinely threatening to our culture, which is they were pretty fucking selfless. They gave that stuff away for the reason that they were really putting art ahead of commerce. They weren’t trying to be viral or anything like that.
And it’s much safer for your average columnist at CNBC or whatever to say, “Everything I learned about how to fucking make a lot of money I learned from Jerry Garcia,” than to actually ask ... I mean, I’m not speaking ... Hopefully, I’m not insulting any one particular columnist, because I don’t have one in mind. But the notion that they were great businessmen and we should learn how to be great businessmen ... No.
Yeah, it just seemed like they sort of stumbled into it.
All of us who joined the parade of the Grateful Dead, you know ... Sorry ...
That’s all right.
Now I’m on my high horse. I’ll shut up before I really insult somebody.
But there was ... Then there were a bunch of ... They’re now called jam bands, right?
Who consciously adopted pretty much all of that, right?
Similar music style, similar ethos, similar business model.
Well, maybe. I mean ...
Yeah. But I also think it’s sort of reductive to call that a whole kind of part of music. I think what they share in common is a notion that every night is going to be a new sonic exploration. And that even when it’s a down night that’s okay, because our fans are allowing us to be improvisational. In the same way that jazz fans allow jazz musicians to riff and to find it and to lose it and to come back and all that stuff.
We’re going to get a new thing today and it may work, it may not work.
That’s kind of where the similarity ends, between the Grateful Dead and the people who are supposed to be carrying on their tradition most of the time, you know?
All right, I didn’t realize it. I touched a live wire there.
You did touch a live wire. I mean, I think the Grateful Dead is about something that is about spontaneity and dynamism. And so where is that spark now? Everybody has to answer that for themselves. There’s a guy who I’ve never met who has a blog called “Thoughts on the Grateful Dead,” who makes fun of me here and there. That’s how I found out about him, was I got a Google alert. He is hysterical. And what was so enjoyable about him is that he just punctures all pieties, you know. He’s always making fun of the Grateful Dead and Deadheads and himself. He’s obviously a huge Deadhead.
But I think that’s really important, and that may be one great place where the spark still is, you know?
No, this particular online blogger.
This guy, that guy, that dude.
I’m bringing him up because I think the Grateful Dead came out of the Acid Test, and the Merry Prankster’s motto was, “Never trust a prankster.” It’s 50 years later now and there’s really a tribe with a flag and all that stuff. And I’m not totally sure that’s a good thing. You know, that’s why when you mentioned jam bands I get a little bit ...
You don’t want a bucket of content with a label on it.
No, I don’t think ... You know, I studied Zen, and the whole beautiful thing about Zen was like, “If you meet Buddha in the road, kill him.” That’s why Zen is so powerful, is that it’s constantly blowing itself up with a heresy and starting new. And that’s what I think the Grateful Dead were inviting. That’s why Jerry didn’t want to be elected the pope of hippies.
So are you blowing yourself up for your next project? Do you do something radically different for the next movie?
I’m trying to figure out ... Thanks for asking. I don’t know what that is, but I would like to. That’s another thing I’ve learned from the Grateful Dead, is, you know, try and do that.
You’ve done documentaries all your life. Do you imagine at some point you’ll do something scripted?
Yeah, I’m sick of documentaries actually, at this moment. I can’t figure out what documentary would be interesting to do next.
And I probably won’t.
All right, well, I like that “I don’t know’ for an answer. That’s good.
Yeah, I don’t know. I really don’t know, yeah.
All right, we’ll keep track of you.
You guys should go check this out.
It was great talking to you.
Amir, thanks for your time.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.