Sunday, April 16, 2017

Amir Bar-Lev's "Long Strange Trip"

I saw Amir Bar-Lev's Long Strange Trip last night at the Castro Theatre. I want to write a longer post after I've had a chance to review and absorb it, but I also want to get a couple of things down quickly.

The film, especially the first half, is visually rich, with tons of footage and photographs I've never seen before. The music is polished up very nicely. The narration is sophisticated. (I won't rehearse the details here, but the Frankenstein motif is both funny and effective.)

The band's basic story comes through, but without many of the standard story elements and characters. There's nothing on Olompali, Woodstock, Festival Express, Rock Scully, Danny Rifkin, the poster artists, Carolyn Garcia, Bill Walton, or even band members Tom Constanten and Vince Welnick. This is a very partial list, but even these missing items are striking.

Also, there are relatively few talking heads outside of the band members themselves. Offhand, I can recall Dennis McNally, Alan Trist, Joe Smith, Sam Cutler, Steve Parish, Trixie Garcia, John Perry Barlow, Steve Silberman, Brigid Meier, Nick Paumgarten, and Al Franken. I'm sure I'm forgetting people, but for a four-hour movie, the cast is remarkably lean, and the story is by no means replete. This isn't a criticism, by the way. To the contrary, I'm impressed that Amir could put across the story and its emotional impacts without genuflecting in the usual places.

I was less impressed by the second half of the film. Although the narration and commentary are admirable, the material itself poses a formidable challenge. How do you tell the Dead's story without allowing Jerry Garcia's addiction to hijack it? The film's decisions on this point reflect the general consensus, which is to say that it doesn't break any new ground in our understanding of Garcia's decline. And perhaps for that reason, the narrative is bound to bog down. The second half is tragic and full of rich paradoxes--the young artist committed to fun and freedom who's finally constrained and burdened by the community he helped to create. But the material simply isn't as interesting as the events that precede it. For this reason, I think, the better books spend more time on the story to 1975 than on the final two decades of touring and recording.

Let me quickly add that my own book was faulted for a weak second half. Like this film, No Simple Highway wasn't an attempt to tell the whole story, soup to nuts. In my view, Dennis McNally had already done that, but I thought there was still some interpretive work to do. I emphasized the band's deep and remarkably stable commitments to ecstasy, mobility, and community--which I argue account for the band's durable success. Although I was clear about my purpose, some reviewers failed to note (or remember) it.

By organizing the last section of my book around community, I consciously shifted the focus from Garcia's personal challenges to what was happening around him. That included the formation of the Dead Head community, which the film also treats at length. But in the 1980s, the band also revamped its ticketing operation and taping policy and hired Dennis as its publicist; David Gans began his syndicated radio program; and Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon started the fanzine. I didn't ignore Garcia's decline, but those changes (and others) grew and consolidated the Dead community, broadly defined. Others will decide whether or not my strategy worked, but my point here is to highlight the basic narrative challenge.

Many viewers might give Amir points for telling the basic story straight and well. I predict others will feel a certain loss of narrative ingenuity and power in the second half of the film.

That's it for now. Something tells me I will be returning to this one.

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