Aspen Film is presenting an experiential drive-in screening of the 2017 documentary “Long Strange Trip.” Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, the film tells the untold story of a legendary jam band that accrued an equally legendary following, the Grateful Dead.
The drive-in’s happening in early August is intentional — it’s a fitting nod to “The Days Between” founding band member Jerry Garcia’s birth, Aug. 1, 1942, and death, Aug. 9, 1995: The screening will take place Sunday at the Snowmass Town Park lot. Parking lot gates will open at 6:30 p.m., and food will be available for purchase from stationed food trucks prior to the 8 p.m. showtime.
Susan Wrubel, executive and artistic director for Aspen Film, said she presented “Long Strange Trip” once before as a special, late-night academy screening at the Isis Theatre back in 2018.
“The theater was packed — I mean, people just went nuts for it,” Wrubel said. “You know how passionate this town is about the Dead. … There was a lot of hootin’ and hollering and dancing going on.”
Throughout the Grateful Dead’s 30-year music career, the eclectic music group attracted a devoted fanbase; they’re known as “Deadheads” and often, rightly or wrongly, described as hippies. A large community of Deadheads still exists today — many of whom live in Aspen — riding out the peace-loving countercultural wave the beloved jam band brought forth through its music since emerging in the 1960s.
“The spirit of the Dead is very similar to the spirit of Aspen in general — it’s sort of like the Gonzo philosophy,” Wrubel said. “There are a lot of explorers, free thinkers and other people who come to Aspen to get out of the box, and that same spirit is in the Grateful Dead’s music.”
Yet, beneath the tie-dye wearing, peace- and psychedelic-loving lore still associated with the Grateful Dead today, the musicians’ background story and evolution as a band is “fascinating,” Wrubel added, and the documentary takes a deep dive into those unseen moments. And you don’t have to be a Deadhead to appreciate “Long Strange Trip.”
Alex Blavatnik, one of the producers for “Long Strange Trip,” said that his personal goal when setting out to help make the film was not necessarily to appease the Deadheads. Rather, he wanted it to be more of an introduction to the band — or at least, explain what they’re all about.
“I’ve seen it more than 20 times, and every single time, there’s something new,” Blavatnik said.
The producer explained that he had a relationship with Grateful Dead band members through his long-time involvement in what is now Warner Music Group — a multinational entertainment and record label conglomerate that owns and operates some of the largest labels in the world. WMG houses Warner Records, formerly Warner Bros. Records, under which the Grateful Dead had been signed early on in their career.
Blavatnik joined the production team for “Long Strange Trip” a little later in the game, and by the time he arrived on the scene, the director had been trying to make the film for seven years, he said.
While there’d been documentaries made about the Grateful Dead, nothing had been done to the extent of how Bar-Lev aspired to tell their story — which involved interviewing all of the band members and including archival footage.
“It took us a while to get the band on board because they’d never done anything like this,” Blavatnik said. “We convinced them that we were the right team to do it.”
Once the band agreed, it took another four years to finish the film.
“It took that long, because things with the Dead just take longer than you’d anticipate,” Blavatnik said.
The producer went on to explain how the filmmakers did in fact conduct lengthy interviews with Dead members who are still living — and their friends and family, too. Additionally, the documentarians were provided with never-before-seen footage by the band members themselves, and Bar-Lev’s vision became a reality.
“I trusted Amir. I knew his heart was in it — it was a very personal film for him,” Blavatnik said. “I mean, all of us, we all grew up listening to the band. All of us are Deadheads.”
Blavatnik recalled how a couple of years into the actual filmmaking process, he and Bar-Lev had a conversation about the film’s length. They originally thought it would run around an hour and a half, a common length for many feature documentaries. But much like Grateful Dead songs, the documentary went much longer than its counterparts.
“At some point, we talked and we said, ‘This film wants to be five hours,’” Blavatnik said. “It turned out to be four hours at the end of the day, but every time I watch the film, the time flies by, it moves fast … you get sucked in and can’t let go.”
Over a decade in the making, “Long Strange Trip” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. Met with praise, the four-hour documentary hit the film festival circuit for about four months until Amazon Prime Video acquired it — in its entirety — and divided it into six separate episodes on its streaming platform.
Among its many recognitions, “Long Strange Trip” earned a Grammy Award nomination for “Best Music Film” in 2018.
“Long Strange Trip” has not been shown in its original full-length form since 2018, and the documentary has never before been screened as a drive-in movie experience, Blavatnik explained. He emphasized that the Aspen Film drive-in on Sunday is a very special occasion: The producer is even traveling to Aspen to experience it himself. It’s a perfect viewing experience, he continued, as the documentary was created for the big screen, with good sound and surrounding people — much like a concert.
“Depending on how people want to listen to it, whether in the car or outside the car, you can really simulate a concert experience to some extent, especially it being screened outside in the summertime,” Blavatnik said. “The Dead were all about summer concerts. It’s a communal experience brought to you by the Grateful Dead.”
The “Long Strange Trip” drive-in will take place on Sunday at Snowmass Town Park in the Rec Center parking lot, located at 2735 Brush Creek Road. The lot will open at 6:30 p.m.; the screening starts at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $40 per vehicle (not per person) and $32 for Aspen Film members. Tickets purchased at the gate will be cash only, and the lot’s capacity is 120 cars. To reserve a slot in advance, visit aspenfilm.org.