Q&A: ‘Long Strange Trip’ director Amir Bar-Lev

Katie Shapiro
The Cannabist
The documentary "Long Strange Trip" will screen Wednesday at the Isis Theatre.
Courtesy photo |


What: ‘Long Strange Trip,’ presented by Aspen Film

Where: Isis Theatre

When: Wednesday, Jan. 10, 5 p.m.

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members; free for Academy voters

Tickets: Isis box office;

It’s almost cosmic, that magic connection a fan feels for “their band.”

The first-ever Grateful Dead documentary to have participation from all living members will screen Wednesday in Aspen at the Isis Theatre and the heavy buzz around “Long Strange Trip” is giving longtime Dead Heads, myself included, another milestone to carry forward the band’s counterculture legacy.

In the holding tent outside the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, where “Long Strange Trip” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year, I caught myself looking the line up and down exchanging nods with studio execs and industry vets who revealed their die-hard Dead Head roots rocking their favorite old concert T’s and stereotypical stoner college gear (shout out to UVM, one of my alma maters). There were even a few folks vaporizing … in Utah.

Unlike any other Sundance screening I’ve attended over the past six years, the crowd felt familiar. Like family. And that comfortable vibe stuck with me throughout the epic four-hour screening that immersed the audience in the psychedelic world of Jerry Garcia and company. I have yet to shake the energy of that night, which is still lingering in my heart.

Berkeley-bred director Amir Bar-Lev — a self proclaimed Dead Head since age 13 — originally pitched the project to Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Bob Weir in 2003, and the film became a decade-plus-long strange trip itself. Over the course of the next 15 years, the filmmaker became a Sundance regular with “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story” and “Happy Valley” standing out among a long list of documentary projects. After working through pushback from the Jerry Garcia estate in 2010 and nabbing Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, Bar-Lev was able to fully commit to finishing the film in 2014, compiling never-before-seen footage, tens of thousands of photographs and new interviews.

The monumental tribute earned immediate and poignant accolades from Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone — both critics admittedly disciples of Captain Trips — and is now in the Academy Award shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. I caught up with Bar-Lev for The Cannabist as he wound down his rock doc run in Park City to talk about the legacy of the Grateful Dead’s spirit, how cannabis is an intrinsic part of the community, and reaching “The End of the Road.”

Katie Shapiro: There was a crazy energy in the room at the premiere, surreal even. How was the night for you?

Amir Bar-Lev: Incredible. This is the end of a 15-year journey for me and besides my kids, it’s the thing that I am most proud of in my life, so it’s been very emotional.

KS: The success of the film aside, what does the Grateful Dead mean to you?

AB-L: One of the things that the film talks about is the human continuum of ideas. Jerry was very careful to say he wouldn’t have become who he was without reading “On the Road” and I wouldn’t have become who I am without the Grateful Dead. I’m not putting the film on the same level as “On the Road” by any stretch, but it’s definitely a signpost.

KS: It’s obvious that you’re a fan in directing a film like this. How did you first get into the band?

AB-L: My parents pointed me in the direction of their generation of music very early on. When I discovered the Grateful Dead — around 1984 — even then I understood the importance that they represented something much more. They were in this camp of musicians that actually had integrity, and for me and other teenagers in the ’80s, it was a salvation from the phoniness we saw in society.

Read the full interview online at


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