There was a moment in rock history when the future Velvet Underground and the future Grateful Dead, bands that could hardly be more stylistically different, had at least one thing in common: They both called themselves the Warlocks. However small the Venn-diagram overlap between their fan bases, Amir Bar-Lev's marathon portrait of the Dead, "Long Strange Trip," should give even the most ardent New York art-rock enthusiast a new perspective on the avatars of California jam-band tribalism. You probably need to be a Deadhead, though, to overlook the film's repetitive stretches and excesses.
Its four-hour running time might suggest otherwise, but a comprehensive group history is not the objective of "Long Strange Trip." Thoughtful, deeply affectionate and concerned more with essence than chronology, it recounts the band's 30 years in a way that should enlighten diehards as well as the uninitiated. Bar-Lev leaves well-known career episodes (Woodstock, Watkins Glen) offscreen while delving into previously unseen footage and insightful recollections from the band and their inner circle.
A work of monumental research and masterfully layered audio and visuals, the doc cuts through the hippie-dippy stereotype to trace a Bay Area lineage rooted in the Beats and on the forefront of an acid-fueled '60s counterculture. Divided into six acts, the film is in large part the story of Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995 at 53 and who eschewed the mantle of leadership even while he was revered as a guru. One of the key paradoxes that the film explores is the Dead's anarchic, extended-family approach within the market-focused hierarchy of the music biz. On this subject — and every topic he addresses — Sam Cutler, the band's tour manager in the early '70s, provides especially incisive, and devilishly droll, commentary.
Tapping into Garcia's love of monster movies, Bar-Lev ("The Tillman Story") cleverly weaves clips from James Whale's "Frankenstein" into the material. The overall structure is smart (John Walter and Keith Fraase led the ace editorial team), but just as Garcia's famously discursive guitar solos couldn't all be brilliant, the film slips into uneven territory after a sharp first hour. Bar-Lev belabors some anecdotes, notably one involving the band's sabotage-by-LSD of a documentary crew. And while the phenomenon of the intensely devoted bootleg tape community that sprang up around Dead shows is certainly worth investigating, do we really need Al Franken rhapsodizing about his favorite live version of "Althea"?
"Trip" regains its footing with an affecting look at Garcia's final, self-medicating years, when he was increasingly isolated in his fame. A burst of renewal after reconnecting with his first love ends in wrenching fashion. Their split presages worse to come, and as Bar-Lev gathers the chorus of pained observers, letting their comments echo one another long after the point is made, it seems he doesn't want to let go.
In some ways the film is guilty of the kind of worship that made Garcia uneasy, but Bar-Lev's emotional connection to his subject is also an animating force. He could have told us more about the Dead and taken less time to do it. But as he traces their trek from a Menlo Park pizza parlor to stadiums, he shows how a band of outsiders forged a new American idiom.
'Long Strange Trip'
Rating: R, for drug content throughout, language and some graphic nudity
Running time: 4 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In limited release; available June 2 on Amazon Prime Video