Leave it to a Grateful Dead documentary to run for four hours. And leave it to Grateful Dead fans to want even more.
“Only Deadheads — you show them a four-hour film and they’re like, ‘What else is there?,'” Amir Bar-Lev told IndieWire Editor at Large Anne Thompson during an intermission Q&A of “Long Strange Trip.”
The theatrical version of the film, which is available to watch on Amazon as a six-hour miniseries, played as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles.
Bar-Lev and Thompson discussed their Deadhead pasts, celebrity cameos, and the decade-long journey it took for his film to come to fruition.
“The band doesn’t seek out publicity and also has got a healthy mistrust of something that’s going to define them,” Bar-Lev said of the band’s hesitance to commit to the documentary. “But also they’re crazy as shit,” he joked.
In fact, he’d worked on the film for years, but it wasn’t until producer Martin Scorsese came on board that it began to work out.
“Marty Scorsese helped. 11 years I was throwing different ideas at their intermediaries and getting some traction and losing it. They move very slowly as an organization,” he explained. “It’s crazy, but we got Martin Scorsese involved and really what he did was he went to a party he ran into [a VIP] and said ‘Hey, why is this taking so long?’ in a very offhanded way, and that actually made all the difference.”
The passion that kept him going was the desire to create a piece of art that would resonate beyond a purely biographical purpose.
“You’re going to be involved in it so long that it has to connect to something that’s vital right now. To me, the story of the Grateful Dead isn’t interesting because it happened, it’s interesting insofar as I’m being connected to things that I think are important for my kids to know about,” he said.
He continued, “It’s a parable about people who tried to do stuff a different way, about a guy, particularly Jerry [Garcia], who was extraordinarily charismatic and extraordinary mistrustful of that dynamic of people who put him on a pedestal. I think that’s interesting in a day and age when we’re so celebrity-obsessed.”
Despite the band’s hesitance to participate in the film, there was just one change they asked Bar-Lev to make.
“I’ll give them a lot of credit. They might’ve had a couple issues but they didn’t insist on us making changes,” he said. “We did make one change which was there was a very young kid…doing nitrous with the roadies and they said please take that out because it was very shocking.”
One shot in four hours isn’t too painful, he said. Plus, the fact that one of the producers was also a Grateful Dead fan meant there was more leeway with the running time.
“We got two hours in and it was 1974,” Bar-Lev joked.
While the original plan was to make a 90-minute documentary, he was ultimately given the creative freedom to do much more than that.
“We had a producer who was a Deadhead so I could speak Deadhead to him and go, ‘Hey, man, I think we have to change the set list.'”
Watch clips from the Q&A below:
“Long Strange Trip” is available on Amazon Prime.
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.