Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’
Long Strange Trip
Directed by Amir Bar Lev
This is an honorific presentation of The Grateful Dead, and especially of their principal guitarist and leader, Jerry Garcia. It is four hours long plus an intermission. I don’t know if I would call this a documentary. It is more of an infomercial, a promotional piece, for The Grateful Dead. Grateful Dead fans will like it, I am sure. The film tells the story of how The Grateful Dead grew as a band and became a phenomenal success with an almost fanatical following. Jerry Garcia started out playing bluegrass on banjo. He was influenced by Earl Scruggs, among others. There was an interesting story about how they arrived at their name. They were thinking it over and Jerry supposedly landed on a random page in the dictionary and came upon the term ‘grateful dead,’ and was taken by it. I’m not sure I buy that tale, but it makes a good story. Throughout the film there are medieval depictions of death and skeletons in a variety of themes and scenarios. However, no insight is offered into the psychological significance that the images of death had for the band. The film is not analytical or critical at all. It is a wholly sympathetic, positive portrayal. You could call it the official version of their story. It probably could have been shortened, especially in the second half, where the subject of Jerry’s early death is taken up. But rather than present us with facts of Jerry’s long demise, the film attempts to transform Jerry Garcia into something of a legend or a prophet. The last half hour is probably the least meritorious segment of the film, which becomes preoccupied with crafting and promoting the Myth of Jerry Garcia. I was probably getting tired by that time as well.
Despite its length, it is not a comprehensive treatment of The Grateful Dead. There are significant omissions and deficiencies in this presentation of their story, but what does come through is the consistently high caliber of the music that this band could produce, and that this band was a magnificent forging of a very diverse group of interesting musicians of exceptional talent and skill. Each member brought something singular and unique that influenced the sound and offered the band a much wider range of possibilities for artistic development. Each one was totally dedicated to musicmaking at the highest level of quality. These guys practiced. They were polished, supremely capable, and extremely tight as a band. I had never been a big fan of theirs, mainly, I think, due to ignorance, although I was well disposed toward them, but I had no idea of the diversity of their output and the top level quality of their performances and recordings. In later years excessive drug use would affect the consistency of these performances and particularly the quality of Jerry’s performance, but when they were on, they were unmatched.
The Grateful Dead were mainly a performing band. Their philosophy and approach to music was that it was about connecting with a live audience to the point where there is almost a merging or blending of the audience and the performers. Spontaneity was important. Improvisation was important. To Jerry, music was something that you made up as you went along. The idea of recording and listening to exactly the same thing over and over again went against the basic mindset of The Grateful Dead. It robbed the experience of listening to music of its immediacy and spontaneity. This is why The Grateful Dead allowed fans to bring their own recording equipment to their concerts, make their own tapes and recordings, and trade and distribute them amongst themselves over the objections of their own record producers.
Protecting copyright is an obsession of those who can’t create. Truly creative people are inexhaustible fountains of interesting output and their primary interest is connecting to other people through their artistic creations, rather than through the transaction of selling and exchanging money. Creation is something that you simply do spontaneously and perpetually. It is more than activity; it is a way of experiencing life. There is drama and adventure and unexpected or undiscovered possibilities in every moment of living. Creative people are always making connections between events, their experiences and the issues of their inner selves. The result is they can always bring forth something fresh and interesting to every new creative effort. It was said that Chopin never played his own compositions the same way twice. Beethoven could take very simple ideas and elaborate them seemingly endlessly in imaginative and interesting ways. Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bach, similarly. The Grateful Dead seemed to have this endless wellspring of creative force within themselves, which made each performance a unique, treasured experience, and inspired a cultish following of “Dead Heads,” who followed the band around the country from concert to concert. This abundance of creative energy was due, I think, to the musical synergy between the band members and their ability to be inspired and feed off of one another.
They spent an enormous amount of money and effort on the sound system for their outdoor concerts, creating the clearest, best quality sound of any large venue performance. They really cared about how their music sounded and about how their fans experienced the music they performed. Nothing exemplifies their musical philosophy of the importance of the spontaneous connection between the musician and the audience in the live act of creation better than the monstrous sound system they constructed and slogged around the country for every single concert. They were sluggish about working in the studio and about fulfilling their obligations to Warner Brothers for saleable albums. But when they applied themselves to the task they spared no expense and brought the same imaginative, innovative spirit into the studio. The results were stunning.
The film does emphasize the importance of drug use, particularly LSD, in influencing the band’s artistic direction. It mentions, but does not develop in great depth, the toll this took on the band and the destructive aspects of their heavy drug use that at times threatened to blow the band apart. But the film is not a psychological exploration of the band or any of its individual members, despite the emphasis on Jerry Garcia. It does not delve into the painful experiences and demons that drove Jerry’s drug use. It does lift out Jerry’s special interest in the movie Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and this film does seem to bear a relationship to the early death of his father when Jerry was seven. The untimely death of his father was clearly a seminal moment in young Jerry’s life, but I did not think the film connected the dots very well on how the early death of his father shaped Jerry’s character. His mother is not mentioned at all. In fact there is very little participation by women in this film, although there were quite a number of female participants in Jerry Garcia’s life. The only one to go on record in this film was Barbara Meier, who was from a later period in his life. None of his children appeared in the film, nor any other immediate family members.
This film is all about the music, the concerts, the image, and some selective snippets of the backstage story of the band, although not in any great depth or personal detail. I would like to have seen a more substantial biographical and interpersonal exploration of this band, which, admittedly, would have been complex. As it is, the lack of complex psychological engagement is saved by the continuous barrage of superb musical examples and video excerpts from their concerts. If you do not have great familiarity with The Grateful Dead or their music, this is a lengthy and convincing introduction to an absolutely first rate band.