Amir Bar-Lev and SHOOTonline Discuss His Grateful Dead Doc 'Long Strange Trip', SXSW, and Commercial Directing.
Director Perspectives on SXSW
- Robert Goldrich, SHOOTOnline
April 3rd, 2017 - Film festival exposure has been a consistent dynamic in the career of lauded director Amir Bar-Lev, whose commercialmaking/branded content roost is Chelsea Pictures. His Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip, which has Martin Scorsese among its executive producers, made its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and then played to more acclaim this month at the recently wrapped (3/10-18) South by Southwest Film Festival.
Bar-Lev’s festival run has spanned varied documentaries, even branded content. On the latter score he helmed Re: Generation Music Project which debuted at the 2012 SXSW fest. Made in association with the Grammys and sponsored by Hyundai, Re:Generation followed five noted DJs—DJ Premier, electronic duo The Crystal Method, Pretty Lights of dub-step fame, Grammy winner Skrillex and producer Mark Ronson—as they remix, recreate and re-imagine five traditional styles of music.
Sundance has also loomed large in Bar-Lev’s filmography, starting with My Kid Could Paint That in 2007 and The Tillman Story in 2010, both nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. The former looked at the work and unexpected success of a four-year-old girl whose paintings have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, buoyed by comparisons to the likes of Picasso. Later, The Tillman Story introduced us to Pat Tillman who left a multi-million dollar pro football contract on the table to serve in the nation’s military. The circumstances of his tragic death in the line of duty, though, were covered up by the military, which instead used his passing as a propaganda tool. The Tillman Story chronicles his family’s struggle to unearth the truth.
Bar-Lev returned to Sundance in 2014 with Happy Valley, a documentary that delves into the year after Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child sex abuse charges. Bar-Lev described the documentary as "a great moral fable," exploring the culture at Penn State and raising moral questions about the folks around Sandusky.
Bar-Lev’s 12.12.12 for executive producer Paul McCartney chronicled the Hurricane Sandy relief concert featuring performances by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen, among others. 12.12.12 premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
Fast forward to today and the latest festival exposure for Bar-Lev is the aforementioned Long Strange Trip, presented as part of SXSW’s 24 Beats Per Second program, billed as showcasing the sounds, culture and influence of music and musicians. They don’t come much more influential than the Grateful Dead, a motley crew which emerged from the Bay Area’s Haight-Ashbury counterculture scene in the 1960s. The Dead generated a unique sound that sprang from a blend of influences: bluegrass, folk ballads, R&B, free-form jazz, classical, and jug band. While Long Strange Trip shares the backstory of how the band came together and found their sound, the narrative moves into the emotional, human areas of the band, their successes and foibles, the burdens of fame. It’s these elements that have a universal resonance that is getting those who aren’t fans of the Grateful Dead to appreciate the band’s members more and to see the relevance of their story.
As for what drew him into taking the Long Strange Trip, Bar-Lev related, "You can’t beat the Dead’s journey from a storytelling perspective. It’s got everything you want in a great rock and roll saga, but it’s also animated by big ideas that are more relevant today than ever before. And yes, I’m also a fan—and like any music fan I’m up for the challenge of convincing skeptics to give something I love a chance. So far I’m pleased that it appears we’re winning people over with the film."
An innovative visual language courses through Long Strange Trip. Bar-Lev explained, for example, "We wanted to make something formally inventive, and have the film be psychedelic not in the typical cartoon-like fashion (trails, dopey lettering, etc.) but rather in the way Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry’s films are. One of the ways we did this was volume, volume, volume. Rather than pay for individual stills, we bought out many photographers’ entire lot—so we could have not just their iconic photo but the photographs taken in the seconds before and after. There’s also a lot of echoing in the film. By its end a symbolic language has been created, so visual motifs take on secondary and even tertiary meaning."
Bar-Lev finds the inclusion of Long Strange Trip at SXSW as being especially gratifying, particularly since it is a perfect fit for the music culture there. "Austin is a great music town but more importantly, its motto is ‘keep Austin weird,’" noted Bar-Lev. "I could say the same about what I was trying to do with this film. ‘Keep The Grateful Dead weird.’"
The director is now eager to take on opportunities in commercials and branded content. He said of Long Strange Trip, "This film monopolized my last six months or so. I’m coming up for air now, and have a bag of new tricks I’m excited to bring into the commercial arena."
Bar-Lev has directed multiple ad projects for 72andSunny, and his "Call of Duty: Endowment" PSA earned industry recognition.
Meanwhile as he re-enters the commercialmaking orbit, Long Strange Trip will connect with people outside the festival circuit. Amazon Studios has acquired the four-hour Grateful Dead documentary and plans to debut it in May on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. and U.K.