Four-hour documentaries about rock bands are nothing new — Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have all been the subjects of these visual equivalents of boxed sets. But the latest entry in the field is perhaps the most detailed yet: Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip,” an elegy for what that director calls the “most American of all rock bands,” the Grateful Dead, and its ringmaster, Jerry Garcia.
The film is passionate, impressionistic and encyclopedic, but one thing it is not, even at its exhaustive length, is a by-the-numbers telling of the band’s 30-year hippie-pirate soap opera. That, Mr. Bar-Lev says, is “one of the reasons why most music documentaries are lame — they seek that exhaustive, plodding chronology.” His film, he said, is not a history lesson. “It’s supposed to work as a film to evoke the Grateful Dead. Then once you’re indoctrinated into the cult, you can find all the albums I didn’t talk about.”
In subject matter, “Long Strange Trip” is a departure for Mr. Bar-Lev, whose last two documentaries were about Joe Paterno, after the child-sex abuse scandals at Penn State, and the deceptive story the Army told about the death of the former National Football League player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. But, he said, exploring the Grateful Dead demanded that he draw on the same storyteller instincts, “where you feel there’s a yawning gap between the myth and the reality.”
Sitting in the kitchen of the toy-strewn brownstone in Brooklyn where he lives with his wife, Jennifer Bleyer, an editor at Psychology Today, and their three children, Mr. Bar-Lev, 45, spoke animatedly about his lifelong obsession with the Dead. Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., he attended a lot of shows between 1985 and 1990, but declined to name how many. “There’s this sort of one-upsmanship nowadays I feel like is anathema to the experience,” he said.
There are specific types of Deadheads, Mr. Bar-Lev said, adding that he falls into the camp that is demanding and lovingly critical of the band and its culture. “For me, being picky was a way of enjoying the Dead and participating in it, much as sports fans perennially complain about their team.” He tempers his enthusiasm for the band with an ambivalence, both philosophical and aesthetic, toward certain aspects of Dead culture. “I don’t like the tribal aspect of Deadheadism,” he said. “I don’t like the saggy fonts they use. Much of the marketing feels like it could be about a monster truck rally. It’s too bro-oriented.”
After the keyboardist Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose in 1990, Mr. Bar-Lev more or less gave up on attending the band’s shows. “The bond between them and the audience, that was a bond, a pact about listening to one another, fell away,” he said.
Mr. Bar-Lev said he hoped his film would reframe the way the band is remembered. Though the Grateful Dead grew out of the LSD-soaked craziness of mid-1960s San Francisco and was the house band for Ken Kesey’s legendary “acid tests,” he believes the group is much more than a phenomenon of a particular cultural moment.
“They shouldn’t be seen as counterculture to America, but right in line with the ideas of our founding fathers,” he said. “The Dead were interested in pursuing the idea of freedom as far as it could possibly be taken. And they were committed to a very democratic approach to rock ’n’ roll — they saw everyone as being a participant in making music; the band, the crew, the fans. They didn’t want to be put on a pedestal.”
Though Garcia is often remembered as Captain Trips, the avuncular psychedelic cheerleader, Mr. Bar-Lev locates in him something darker and lonelier. As he is portrayed in the early parts of the film, Garcia is a man of irrepressible, joyful charisma. It is painful to watch his inexorable decay as the enormity of the Grateful Dead enterprise pushes him toward the solace of heroin addiction and, ultimately, his death from a heart attack when he was 53.
“I feel like Jerry was always keeping an eye on his future nonbeing from a very young age, and that’s one of the very useful things about the Grateful Dead, it’s a meditation on death,” Mr. Bar-Lev said. “The more you think about death, the more committed you become to living in the moment. So it’s not accidental that he has this effusive, vibrant life force and also embodies a certain inevitable march towards death. That’s the heart of the Grateful Dead. That’s why the two icons are the rose and the skull.”
Mr. Bar-Lev initially approached the Dead organization in 2003 with the idea of making a film about the band’s lyrics. He got a quick go-ahead and a blessing from Alan Trist, a longtime Dead employee who then ran the band’s publishing operation and is a significant presence in the film. “I did a back flip,” Mr. Bar Lev said. “I couldn’t believe it was that easy. But it wasn’t easy.”
It wasn’t until 2015, the band’s 50th anniversary, that he finally gained the cooperation he had sought a dozen years before and was commissioned to make a 90-minute film. All four of the band’s surviving members — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — agreed to appear on film. He was also given full access to the band’s voluminous archives, which created its own set of challenges. To process the material, he had to create what he called “a costly apparatus” to sift through and log thousands of photographs — more than 1,100 appear in the finished documentary — hours of film footage and hundreds of interviews the band members gave over the years.
It didn’t take long to realize that it would be impossible to fulfill his original assignment. “We got to 1974, and it was already two hours long,” Mr. Bar-Lev said. At some points, he seemed on the verge of getting lost in the material.
“There were times,” said Ken Dornstein, Mr. Bar-Lev’s producer, “when I really wasn’t sure Amir was going to emerge on the other side of this one with a finished film.”
After so many years immersed in the world of the Grateful Dead, Mr. Bar-Lev is not ready to let go of the band. He is considering a scripted film, telling the story of Jerry Garcia’s life from childhood until he founded the Dead. To explain Garcia’s continuing hold on his imagination, he described the taping of an episode of Hugh Hefner’s old TV show “Playboy After Hours,” where members of the band slipped LSD into the coffee.
“Jerry called it trying to ‘turn an artificial party into an authentic one.’ As I get older, and the world grows more and more artificial, I find myself wondering who is going to step up to try and dose the coffee urn?”