Martin Scorsese agreed to serve as producer for an official Grateful Dead documentary back in October 2014. The Dead’s 50th anniversary was coming up the following year, and filmmakers wanted to have the project ready for the celebration. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, and the landmark event was ultimately celebrated with a massive 3-day concert over the 4th of July weekend in Chicago’s Soldier Field. Original members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh reunited on-stage for the event, which proved a huge success, despite the absence of Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995. Now, however, the 6-part documentary, appropriately titled Long Strange Trip from director Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story, Happy Valley), is set to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before being released on Amazon Prime this May.
Scorsese’s love affair with rock n’ roll goes back to his years as a young filmmaker. Throughout his career, he has directed documentaries for such acts as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Michael Jackson. His most famous “rocumentary”, however, is The Last Waltz, which documented the final performance by The Band intertwined with interviews with members Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. The film was not only a huge success for Scorsese; it is also recognized as one of the most important rock films ever made by both critics and fans alike. One of the most famous groups never explored by the director in official documentary form, however, is The Grateful Dead.
The Grateful Dead was founded in Palo Alto, California in 1965 by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann. The group earned an instant following amid San Francisco’s psychedelic “counterculture” and came to be known critically for their sound that fused genres like country, blues, rock, folk, bluegrass, and reggae. In addition to their unique style, the Dead are also known for their live performances, which consisted of extended, improvised jam sessions on stage, for which they are credited as pioneers of the “jam band” movement. Indeed the group is known to never have played any of their studio material the same exact way on any tour or for any independent gig. As Garcia pointed out in a 1966 interview, “We don’t make up our sets beforehand. We’d rather work off the tops of our heads than off a piece of paper.”
The Dead continued to play together for the next 30 years, adding new members and expanding beyond the core group as they went along. They gained a nationwide following after the release of their 1969 live album Live/Dead and their subsequent studio albums that followed the next year, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. The band’s style and lyrics, provided by new members Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, made them significant players in the Americana genre of music, which included acts like Dylan, the Band, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, John Fogerty, Bob Seger, and Loretta Lynn, among others. Although there have been Dead documentaries released throughout the years, like The Grateful Dead Movie (1977) which consisted of a live concert performance and interwoven archive and interview footage, the band’s entire history has yet to be explored in any real capacity. Bar-Lev’s new 6-part documentary will now give Deadheads the Dead documentary they have long been waiting for. Long Strange Trip will be available on Amazon Prime this May.