Review: ‘Box of Rain,’ starring Lonnie Frazier, Betsy Abel-Talbott, Peter Conners, Joey Talley, Jim LeBrecht, Tim Zecha and Brian O’Donnell

June 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Box of Rain” (Photo courtesy of Mutiny Pictures)

“Box of Rain”

Directed by Lonnie Frazier

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Box of Rain” features an all-white group of middle-aged and elderly Grateful Dead fans discussing how this rock band’s music and culture made a positive impact on their lives.

Culture Clash: Grateful Dead concerts, which were about improvisation and peaceful freedom of expression, inspired the same attitudes in Grateful Dead fans (also known as Deadheads), who are sometimes misunderstood or stereotyped by other people. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Grateful Dead fans, “Box of Rain” will appeal to people interested in documentaries about unique music-based fandoms.

Jim LeBrecht in “Box of Rain” (Photo courtesy of Mutiny Pictures)

The documentary “Box of Rain” is an admittedly sentimental love letter to Grateful Dead fans (also known as Deadheads) that doesn’t reveal anything groundbreaking. The movie (directed by Lonnie Frazier, who counts herself as a longtime Deadhead) mostly consists of Deadheads sharing rosy memories of their experiences going to Grateful Dead concerts and how Deadhead culture changed their lives. There’s a lot of hippie nostalgia in the movie (which only interviews Deadheads), but it’s the type of nostalgia that isn’t preachy or too wistful of a bygone era. The movie tends to be repetitive, but it’s also uplifting and celebratory of people finding communities that are positive, which is the overall tone of this fan-oriented documentary.

“Box of Rain” is named after the “Box of Rain” song on the Grateful Dead’s 1970 “American Beauty” album. The documentary is a collection of thoughts and anecdotes from Grateful Dead fans who experienced the San Francisco-based rock band in the decades when the Grateful Dead toured with lead singer/co-founder Jerry Garcia, who died of a heart attack in 1995, at the age of 53. He was staying in a drug rehab facility at the time of his death.

One of the reasons why “Box of Rain” is so appealing is that “Box of Rain” director Frazier made it a personal film to share her own story about how becoming part of the Deadhead community helped her tremendously in healing from trauma. She provides occasional voiceover narration for the movie, and she appears in several of the documentary’s scenes. Frazier is an immensely likable presence in the movie and comes across as completely genuine in wanting to share how much of an impact the Grateful Dead made on her life and on the lives of so many other people.

As Frazier explains in the beginning of the movie, when she was 17 years old, she was violently raped by a group of male students who went to the same high school and whom she had known since they were all in elementary school. This horrific crime happened one night when she accepted a car ride from them after leaving a party. Instead of driving her to her car, these attackers drove her to a field and raped her.

Frazier says in a documentary voiceover: “After that, I felt like I was drowning in hopelessness. I reached out for help, but I was dismissed and sometimes even blamed. I was scared and suicidal. I didn’t feel safe anywhere. When home doesn’t feel like home, where do you go?”

She continues, “I was lucky. I found kindred spirits who showed me what a family can be, and what home can feel like. Being accepted into the Deadhead community had a profound influence on my life. Making this film is my way of thanking them for saving me.”

What was that turning point for her? Frazier says, “It all started with free tickets to see the Grateful Dead and a road trip.” Not long after she was raped and in a very dark place in her life, a friend named Betsy had free Grateful Dead tickets and invited Frazier and another friend to go on a road trip to travel from Maryland to see the Grateful Dead at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. The concert took place on September 6, 1985 (the documentary briefly shows a ticket stub from the show), and Frazier had just recently gotten a new car, which was used for the road trip.

Frazier says in the documentary that she was so eager to get out of her current living environment, she jumped at the chance to go on the trip, which she took with the two other teenage friends: Betsy Abel-Talbott and Kelly Gallagher. (A grey and white cat was also along for the ride.) Abel-Talbott, Gallagher and Frazier are shown together in a reunion interview that’s fun to watch, as they happily reminisce about this road trip. Abel-Talbott comments, “The trip was an incredible bonding experience for three girls. It was phenomenal.”

Later, in the documentary, Frazier is shown returning to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which is a located in the middle of a natural rock structure, to share more memories of that concert, which was the first time that she saw the Grateful Dead perform. She vividly describes the overwhelming feeling of belonging to a community and feeling immediately accepted by strangers at this concert, which are feelings that she’d never experienced before. Frazier mentions that it feels a little strange that Abel-Talbott and Gallagher weren’t able to go with her on this return to Red Rocks. It was probably because the footage was filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. People are seen wearing pandemic masks in this Red Rocks footage.

This feeling of belonging to a welcoming community and feeling instantly accepted are recurring themes when people describe Deadhead culture in this documentary. Although some people describe the Deadhead lifestyle as almost like being part of a religion, it has never been a religion or a cult. Cults are defined as having leaders who dictate what cult members do with their lives, with an “us against them” mentality when interacting with people who aren’t in the cult. Deadhead culture is just the opposite, since the overall attitude is to let people be themselves peacefully, and to respectfully let people make up their own minds about what makes them happy.

Still, like any famous band, the Grateful Dead had a lot of fanatical followers, many of whom dropped out of school or quit their jobs to follow the band around on tour. Many of these Deadheads also raised families in this lifestyle and sustained themselves by selling art, food, jewelry, T-shirts and/or other memorabilia to get enough money for living expenses and to get to the next Grateful Dead concert. Grateful Dead concerts were also known for their communal scenes in each venue’s parking lot, where there was plenty of partying before and after the concerts. A few people in the documentary briefly mention financial hardships because of the costs of following the Grateful Dead on tour, but it’s all framed in a nostalgic tone of “youthful adventures,” without going into details about any of the harsh down sides to the lifestyle.

The people interviewed in the documentary all consider themselves to be Deadheads with a wide range of experiences. When asked to estimate the number of Grateful Dead concerts they saw in their lives, the lowest number named by one person is 20 to 30, while the highest number named by another person is 400. Grateful Dead concerts were beloved by fans not only because of the Deadhead community but also because the band never played the same set list at each concert. Songs often stretched into improvisational jams and were never played in the same way twice at Grateful Dead shows.

Rev. Joey Talley, who is described as an “old Wiccan minister” in the documentary, is the Deadhead in the movie who estimates that she’s seen about 400 Grateful Dead concerts, starting from the 1970s. She comments on Deadheads traveling around the United States: “We saw the good, the bad and the ugly. And sometimes, we saw bad things done to those places. And that gave us a sensitivity for taking care of the planet.”

It’s no coincidence that many Deadheads are also vegetarians/vegans and environmentalists. However, one of the things that comes up a lot in the documentary is that there are all types of Deadheads. And although it might be tempting to stereotype Deadheads as disheveled hippie types who take psychedelic drugs and are stuck in a “peace and love” Woodstock Festival mindset, the Deadheads in this documentary say that there are many Deadheads who definitely do not fit this stereotype.

For example, Frazier says that she’s never taken hallucinogenic drugs in her life. “Growing Up Dead” author Peter Conners, who became a Deadhead when he was a teenager, comments in the documentary that he’s met many non-Deadhead people who have assumed that his time following the Grateful Dead on tour meant that he had a lifestyle filled with non-stop drug parties and sex orgies. Conners said when he was a young Deadhead, he was definitely interested in dating, but his Deadhead lifestyle wasn’t nearly as decadent as many people assume it was.

Several of the Deadheads in the documentary say that, unlike many rock concerts, Grateful Dead concerts were environments where being physically aggressive and ready to start fights were severely unwelcomed and not allowed to become a problem. Violent and rude people were shunned or removed from Deadhead communities. Deadheads say that treating people with respect and showing kindness to others are core values to Deadhead culture.

The closest that anyone in the documentary comes to criticism of the Grateful Dead is when a few people mention that sometimes the band wasn’t playing at its best at a concert, but that the festive atmosphere from the crowd made up for any disappointing musicianship on stage. A few of the Deadheads in the documentary also gripe about how the Deadhead scene changed (and not for the better) in the late 1980s. They blame this change on the Grateful Dead reaching a new audience because of the band’s 1987 hit “Touch of Grey,” which was popular on the radio and MTV, and which brought a lot of “meatheads” and “macho frat boys” to Grateful Dead concerts.

Because so many of these Deadhead stories have a positive spin, the documentary leaves out a lot of uncomfortable truths about Grateful Dead concerts. For example, no one in the movie talks about overcrowding or drug freakouts at Grateful Dead shows, which were notorious for many attendees being under the influence of psychedelic drugs. No one talks about any legal problems or health problems they might have encountered as a direct result of being a Deadhead, since getting involved in illegal drugs was part of the lifestyle for many Deadheads.

Instead, the documentary has people saying they never saw any violence at Grateful Dead shows they attended. That doesn’t mean nothing unpleasant ever happened at these shows, but the Deadheads in the documentary say that any violence was more likely to come from someone who wasn’t a true Deadhead. Every community has its share of people who behave badly, so it’s not entirely believable that there were no Deadheads who committed violence.

Talley shares a story that happened years ago when she was a young woman at a Grateful Dead concert. She was introduced to a man who was newcomer to the Deadhead scene, and he greeted her with a hug but also by grinding his genitals against her without her consent. When a longtime Deadhead, who had brought this creep to the concert, found out about this sexual assault, Talley says that this protective Deadhead brought the assaulter to Talley and told him to make an apology to her, which the assaulter did. Talley says that was an example of how Deadheads looked out for each other.

Overall, most of the women interviewed in the documentary say that they felt safe at Grateful Dead concerts. Frazier has this to say about becoming part of the Deadhead community, where she could openly talk about her love of art, photography and movies: “It was the first time I felt viewed as a female human being who had things to offer besides what someone could take from me.” Later in the documentary, Frazier begins crying when she comments that after recovering from her rape, becoming part of the Deadhead community restored her faith that most people are essentially good.

However, Conners admits that when he was a young Deadhead, he didn’t really think about how concert experiences could be different for women and the “greater risks” that female Deadheads were “taking with their personal safety … that I took for granted because I had the privilege of being a 6-foot-tall white male moving through the world. I didn’t have to worry about safety issues so much.”

“Box of Rain” admirably brings up an issue that often gets ignored in documentaries about fans of rock concerts: how disabled people experience these concerts. One of the documentary’s interviewees is Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp” co-director Jim LeBrecht, a longtime Deadhead who uses a wheelchair. LeBrecht describes what it was like to go to a Grateful Dead concert before and after 1990’s Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities, thereby requiring disability access for disabled people in buildings that are open to the public.

Before the ADA (and when most concerts were general admission), wheelchair-using people who went to concerts were usually put in a section in the back where they could see above the crowd but still were far away from the stage, in an era when most concerts didn’t have large video screens. Despite often being treated like second-class concertgoers, LeBrecht says marijuana-using Deadheads in wheelchairs had some “perks” when they went to a Grateful Dead concert: “If you’re ever at a party, and you’re looking for the person with the best pot, you’re looking for the person in the wheelchair, because these folks had great pot.”

The death of Grateful Dead leader Garcia was devastating to many fans, and there’s a section of the documentary that discusses this topic. Tim Zecha, who says he thought of Garcia as being “like a shaman,” gets tearful when he remembers meeting Garcia and being an admittedly “star-struck fan” during this encounter. LeBrecht comments on his own reaction to Garcia’s death: “I don’t think I recovered for a year, because it was the absolute closing of an era in my life.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Marty “Ziggy” Leipzig, Johnny Adams, James Talley, Mark Mullis, Jack Gerard, Bob Shugoll, Jen Rund, Kelley Condon, Julie Moore, Jim McWatters and “Deadheads” documentary filmmaker Brian O’Donnell. The “Box of Rain” documentary includes a section where many of the interviewees talk about “magic shows,” a Deadhead term for Grateful Dead concerts that were extraordinarily magical experiences for Deadheads.

The Grateful Dead was the first major rock band to allow fans to record the band’s concerts. It resulted in widespread tape trading among fans who collected recordings of these shows. A section of “Box of Rain” covers the Deadhead tape-trading community. Tape trading seems very quaint now in this digital era where anyone with a smartphone can record concerts and share these digital recordings.

It’s an example of how the Grateful Dead was ahead of its time, because the band let fans record Grateful Dead shows during an era when audience members who were caught recording concerts could get expelled or arrested for copyright law violations. Nowaways, it’s become common to go to a concert and see numerous people openly recording it. Entire concerts or large portions of concerts are now uploaded or livestreamed by audience members for people around the world.

In one way or another, the Deadheads interviewed in the “Box of Rain” documentary say that the band’s music, especially at the live concerts, helped them be better people, resulted in great experiences, and got them through tough times. Leipzig, whose husband Michael died of prostate cancer, says that listening to the Grateful Dead’s music was a comfort to her and Michael and helped them cope during his cancer battle: “I know when we listened to certain songs together, we were moved to another plane of understanding and compassion—so thank you, Grateful Dead.”

Many of the stories told in the documentary will be moving to anyone, especially people who can relate to finding a lot of joy and emotional healing through music. In other words, viewers don’t need to be fans of the Grateful Dead to enjoy the “Box of Rain” documentary. The movie isn’t perfect, but if the intention of “Box of Rain” is to make viewers smile and feel good about humanity, then this documentary definitely succeeds in that purpose.

Mutiny Pictures released “Box of Rain” on digital and VOD on May 3, 2022.

Review: ‘Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics’ starring Sting, Ben Stiller, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Deepak Chopra, A$AP Rocky and Sarah Silverman

May 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rob Corddry in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics”

Directed by Donick Cary

Culture Representation: This documentary interviews a predominantly white male group of entertainers who talk about their experiences taking psychedelic drugs, and the movie features a diverse group of actors doing comedy skits about psychedelic drug experiences.

Culture Clash: Despite these drugs being illegal, almost all of the people interviewed say that they don’t regret taking psychedelic drugs.

Culture Audience: “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” will appeal to people who just want one-sided comedic stories about taking psychedelic drugs, because the movie’s agenda is to exclude any stories about the drugs’ long-term negative effects on health.

Nick Offerman in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In its overexuberance to portray psychedelic drug taking as something that’s harmless or something to laugh about later, the documentary “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” sinks to new lows of exploitation by prominently featuring two celebrities whose tragic, self-destructive deaths are definitely not funny. The documentary’s filmmakers (including director Donick Cary) made the morbid and tacky decision to display the filmmakers’ interviews with Carrie Fisher and Anthony Bourdain in this parade of celebrities who mostly glamorize taking psychedelic drugs.

Fisher died in 2016 of drug-related causes. Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. They both struggled with mental-health issues and drug addiction and admitted to taking a lot of LSD and other psychedelics in their lifetimes. Needless to say, Fisher and Bourdain are definitely not examples of how psychedelic drugs can help people with mental-health problems and drug addictions. And yet, the documentary pushes the scientifically unproven agenda that psychedelic drugs are beneficial to people suffering from drug addiction and mental-health issues.

But hey, why let these tragic deaths get in the way of making a documentary where these now-dead people are shown joking about their acid trips, as if those drug experiences couldn’t possibly be harmful to them? They’re certainly not going to talk about the negative side effects of “bad trips,” such as suicidal thoughts, depression or psychosis. After all, this movie wants people to believe that psychedelics are “shiny, happy drugs,” without giving a thoroughly honest look at the down sides too, because the film is so focused on having people endorse these drugs.

And there’s a reason why the filmmakers only included entertainers in this documentary that glamorizes psychedelic drugs. Imagine a documentary that featured a bunch of health-care workers, emergency responders, schoolteachers or airplane pilots joking about their experiences doing psychedelic drugs, and many of the interviewees giving the impression that they still do psychedelics on a regular basis. It wouldn’t seem so “harmless” then, would it?

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the documentary focuses on people (some more famous than others) who are in showbiz, where illegal drug abuse is flaunted and often celebrated. The average person in a regular job would not be able to get away with bragging in a Netflix documentary about their drug experiences.

Nor does the average person have the kind of money that rock star Sting has, to fly to Mexico whenever he wants, just to take peyote in an elaborate shaman ritual, which he describes in vivid detail in the documentary. Almost all of the people in this film can easily afford to indulge in taking illegal drugs and do not have to worry about how they’re going to pay for any medical treatment or legal issues if things go wrong. It’s one of the reasons why the documentary glamorizes these drug experiences, because there are some negative consequences to illegal drug taking that the “average” person can’t casually dismiss as easily as a well-paid entertainer can.

In addition to Sting, there are several other entertainers in the documentary who talk about their psychedelic drug trips or say that they’ve used psychedelic drugs: Ben Stiller (who’s one of the documentary’s producers), Nick Kroll, Deepak Chopra, Will Forte, A$AP Rocky, Nick Offerman, Shepard Fairey, Lewis Black, Paul Scheer, Rob Corddry, Andy Richter, Judd Nelson, Sarah Silverman, Jim James, Diedrich Bader, Rob Huebel, Reggie Watts, Natasha Lyonne, Adam Horovitz, Mark Maron, Rosie Perez, Donovan, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Brett Gelman, Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and David Cross.

One of the problems of doing a documentary like this is that you never really know how much people could be exaggerating or lying about these drug experiences. Many of the people interviewed are comedians and actors—two professions that are notorious for people fabricating things about their lives in order to get attention. Therefore, this documentary should not be considered very “realistic” by any stretch of the drug-addled imagination.

The psychedelic stories are re-enacted in one of two ways: through animation or by having live actors do a scripted skit. The animated segments (from Sugarshack Animation) are among the best aspects of the documentary. The scripted skits are hit-and-miss.

One of those misfires is miscasting Adam Devine as Bourdain in a re-enactment of Bourdain’s description of a drug-fueled, Hunter S. Thompson-inspired road trip that he took when he was a young man in the 1970s. Devine is known for having a sweet and goofy persona, while Bourdain was the complete opposite, which makes the re-enactment wrong from the get-go.

Even worse, the story that Bourdain tells isn’t even that funny. The road trip included Bourdain and a male friend picking up two women and partying heavily with them in a hotel room, including ingesting several drugs, such as LSD, alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. One of the women overdosed, and the others thought she was dead. So they just left her unconscious on the floor while they tried to figure out what to do, according to Bourdain.

Bourdain, while high on LSD, says that he imagined that there would be police coming to arrest them, with helicopters, searchlights, and a S.W.A.T.-like team surrounding the room. And then the woman suddenly regained consciousness and started to dance as if nothing had happened. Someone could’ve died from ingesting drugs while you were partying with that person, you had a LSD-induced panic attack about being arrested, and that’s supposed to be funny?

A better re-enactment that accomplishes its intended humor is Natasha Leggero dressed in a “Star Wars” Princess Leia outfit, for Fisher’s tale of being high on LSD while in New York City’s Central Park. During that psychedelic experience, Fisher says she spent a great deal of time being upset at seeing an acorn “misbehave” on the grass. During another acid trip on a beach, Fisher vaguely remembers she might have been topless when a bus full of Japanese tourists stopped right in front of her and they recognized her.

And in a somewhat clever casting switcheroo, Corddry plays Scheer in the segment that re-enacts Scheer’s psychedelic story, while Scheer plays Corddy in Corddry’s re-enactment. Meanwhile, Kroll portrays himself in his re-enactment about how he and a group of male friends were high on LSD at a Malibu beach, and the friends covered him in kelp as a prank. He then imagined himself to be a kelp monster and chased them around the beach. (Things weren’t so funny the next morning when he woke up covered in bites from whatever small animals were in the kelp.)

Most of the psychedelic trips described in the documentary are about hallucinations, experiencing colors in a different way, or losing a sense of time or memory. And there are the typical stories of “revelations,” along the lines of “I saw inside my soul,” “I saw how connected the world is” and “I found out the meaning of life is to love everybody.” Some of the people interviewed also give advice by saying it’s better to take psychedelics with trusted friends and to avoid looking in mirrors while under the influence of psychedelics.

A$AP Rocky (one of the few people of color who’s interviewed in the film) tells one of the documentary’s funniest stories, about how he took LSD with a beautiful female companion. During the course of the time they had together, they started having sex. And he swears that he saw a rainbow shoot from his penis during this encounter. “I don’t even like rainbows,” he quips. (Needless to say, the re-enactment for this story is definitely in animation form.)

But for every entertaining story like that one, the documentary has a story that’s basic or boring. The Grateful Dead was considered the ultimate psychedelic rock band, so you’d think one of the Dead’s drummers would have some hilarious stories to tell. Wrong.

Kreutzmann’s anecdotes aren’t that interesting or revealing, unless you consider it’s fascinating that he tells a story of coming home to his parents’ house after staying out all night while he was on LSD, and hallucinating that his breakfast meal of eggs were moving on the plate. He also mentions that he once couldn’t finish performing at a Grateful Dead concert because he was hallucinating that his drums were melting. Yawn.

Being stoned on psychedelics at a Grateful Dead show is also predictably mentioned by some of the interviewees, such as Corddry and Maron. (The late Fred Willard has a cameo as a Deadhead hippie in the re-enactment of Maron’s psychedelic story.) Garant comedically describes how you can tell the difference between someone having a “good trip” and a “bad trip” at a Dead concert, because someone having a “good trip” will lean forward while walking, while someone having a “bad trip” will lean backward while walking, as if they’re afraid of where their head will go.

Sting, who says he’s had good and bad psychedelic trips, mentions that facing his own mortality was one of the most frightening things he ever experienced while under the influence of psychedelics. He also describes the first time he took peyote. It was at a farm in England, where he was unexpectedly asked to help a cow give birth while he was tripping out on the drug. He was told that the cow would die if he didn’t help, and when the calf was born, Sting says he finally understood the miracle of life.

“I think it’s a valuable experience,” says Sting of taking psychedelic drugs. “Whenever I’ve had a bad trip—and I’ve had many—I’ve realized it was what I needed. Sometimes, you need to have your ego taken down a notch or two. On the other hand, you can have immensely rewarding experiences. My feeling is that it balances out.”

Stiller is one of the few celebrities in the documentary who talks about disliking what he says was his one and only experience with LSD (when he was a young man in the ’80s), because it was a bad trip. He says that he was hoping that it would be an enlightening experience, but instead he spent the approximately six-hour acid trip feeling “fear and anxiety.”

“Immediately, I started to freak out and get really scared,” Stiller remembers. “I started staring at my hand, doing the cliché thing of of pondering what my hand was.” His paranoia during the acid trip was made worse, he says, when he and the friend he was with at the time began walking around New York City and saw the parade floats that were going to be in the upcoming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Stiller says that he hallucinated that the floats were chasing him, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the “Ghostbusters” movie.

Perez and Silverman each say that the first time they took LSD, it was by accident. Silverman said that it happened when she and some comedian friends were hanging out at a diner in New York City, when a hippie stranger walked in and handed her a tab of LSD that she took without even asking what it was. Her story isn’t as coherent as some of the others, since she recalls laughing and crying with a group of people in public and then ending up in someone’s car with the driver (who was also on LSD) forgetting how to drive.

Perez said she got “dosed” when she was out with her sister on New Year’s Eve in their hometown of New York City, sometime in the late ’80s. They went to a nightclub, where she was offered some fruit punch as a drink. Little did she know that the punch was spiked with LSD. Perez says that she  hallucinated that the dance floor had turned into waves, and she ended up rolling around with her breasts exposed.

Her trip intensified when she got home and imagined that her body had merged into her bed. Perez says she didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol at this time in her life, so when she was told that she was having an acid trip, her first thought was that she was going to hell. She says that the experience led her to seek therapy, which helped her get over her “Catholic guilt,” so she thinks getting rid of her religious hang-ups was one good thing that came out of the experience.

Speaking of guilt trips, the movie pokes fun at the ridiculous, over-the-top and usually badly acted public-service announcements (PSAs) aimed at preventing people, especially young people, from taking psychedelics. Offerman pops up occasionally throughout the film in a parody of a science professor who talks about the effects of psychedelics. NBCUniversal’s “The More You Know” PSA campaign is mocked with “The More You Trip,” whenever one of the interviewees gives advice on what to do or what not to do when taking psychedelics. (For example: “Don’t drive while on acid.”)

The “ABC Afterschool Special” is given the satire treatment with the documentary’s “LSD Afterschool Special,” a multi-part segment that has actor/comedian Adam Scott as the host of a 1980s-styled PSA film with a plot of nerdy high schoolers (played by Haley Joel Osment and Maya Erskine) going to a house party and being tempted into the “evils” of taking LSD. It’s a funny idea but it’s executed poorly.

On a more serious note, “Have a Good Trip” also attempts to promote the theory that using psychedelics is the best way to treat depression and other mental-health issues. Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is interviewed about his research in this area. Not surprisingly, he’s a proponent of using psychedelics to treat these issues (how else would he be able to continue to get research money), but the documentary fails to present other scientific points of view.

The only other non-entertainer interviewed in the film is Zach Leary, son of famed LSD guru Timothy Leary. And what he has to say is very predictable and reveals nothing new at all: “DMT is like the express ticket to primordial ooze. If you want to see what it is to be an organic being and absolutely watch your ego dissipate into nothingness, smoke some DMT, and you’ll get there right away.”

Although some people in the documentary, including Dr. Grob, caution that taking psychedelics isn’t for everyone and can have damaging effects for some people, any of those “bad effects” stories are shut out of the film. It’s like doing a documentary about bungee jumping and refusing to talk about the people who got seriously injured or killed from this risky stunt.

Celebrity spiritual guru Chopra, who says he experimented with psychedelics in the past, is one of the few people in the film who admits “you run the risk of psychosis” from doing psychedelics. Of course, the film only presents stories from people who say that they have “happy endings” from taking psychedelics. And two of those people are now dead because of self-destructive reasons, so viewers can judge for themselves how “beneficial” psychedelics really are in helping people with serious health issues such as depression and addiction.

One of the more irresponsible things about the documentary is that it leaves out any talk of acid flashbacks. Naïve people who see this film as a guide to taking psychedelic drugs might think that once an acid trip is “over,” the drug has left the body, the way that alcohol can leave the human body through urine after a 24-to-48-hour period if no more alcohol is consumed. But the scientific reality is that, depending on the dosage, psychedelic drugs can stay in the body for a variable period of time, and that can lead to unpredictable and random “flashback” trips.

How people feel about “Have a Good Trip” will depend largely on how much they worship celebrities and take their words as gospel. The psychedelic anecdotes in the film should be taken for what they are—stories from people who are in the business of creating fake personas and making things look more glamorous than they really are.

The people who were chosen to be interviewed for this documentary also have the privilege of being less likely to be arrested for illegal drugs. (With few exceptions, most of the people in this film have a certain level of fame.) And they are less likely to have their careers ruined by a lot of psychedelic drug use, compared to people who don’t live in such a privileged bubble. It’s something to think about whenever you hear a celebrity in a certain income bracket openly brag about using illegal drugs.

Netflix premiered “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” on May 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Days of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont’

January 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

(Image courtesy of Vision Films)

“Days of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont”

Directed by Tom O’Dell

Culture Representation: A documentary about the disastrous and tragic Altamont concert headlined by the Rolling Stones in 1969, “Days of Rage” focuses on the era’s youthful counterculture movement and the business of rock music, as represented by white men who are British and American.

Culture Clash: In addition to showing a history of the 1960s counterculture and Generation Gap, the movie also examines how violence affected the factions of pop culture that were involved in the Altamont concert.

Culture Audience: “Days of Rage” will appeal primarily to Rolling Stones fans and people interested in learning more about how the Altamont concert became a notorious example of the dark side of the 1960s counterculture movement.

Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger (pictured at far left) on stage at the 1969 Altamont concert, in a photo still from “Days: of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont” (Photo courtesy of Vision Films)

The first thing you should know about the absorbing documentary “Days of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont” is that the Rolling Stones are not interviewed for this film. The second thing you should know is that the movie is not a rehash of “Gimme Shelter,” the 1970 documentary from director brothers Albert and David Maysles that chronicled the Rolling Stones’ ill-fated free Altamont concert in the San Francisco area on December 6, 1969. Even without the Rolling Stones’ participation, “Days of Rage” is a riveting historical account that explores much more than the Rolling Stones’ performance at Altamont concert. The movie takes an overall look at the circumstances and culture that led up to this tragic and violent event, during which an African American man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death in the audience by Hell’s Angels gang members while the Rolling Stones were performing “Sympathy for the Devil.” (The band didn’t perform the song for years after the tragedy happened.)

People who are interested in this documentary, which clocks in at a little over 100 minutes, should also know that the descriptions of the Altamont concert don’t come until the last third of the movie. The first two-thirds of the movie are a deep dive into how rock music and youth culture influenced each other in the 1960s, and led to the rise of the era’s counterculture movement. The 1960s counterculture was defined by rebellion against traditional establishment customs, and it included Vietnam War protests, liberal/left-wing politics, sexual liberation and rampant drug use, with marijuana and LSD being popular drugs of choice. Even though Altamont and the Rolling Stones are used as a hook in the title to sell this documentary, the movie is really about issues much larger than a rock band and a concert. The background information on how the 1960s counterculture happened might not be very revealing to aficionados who already know about the counterculture movement, but the documentary is a compelling visual journey into this part of history, regardless of how much knowledge people have about it.

Fortunately, director Tom O’Dell, who also wrote and edited “Days of Rage,” has constructed the story in such a fascinating way that viewers shouldn’t mind how long it takes for the film to get to the details of Altamont, since the preceding content provides much-needed context to explain how the Rolling Stones ended up in the most tragic moment of the band’s history. Unlike many unauthorized films about famous entertainers that are released direct to video, this isn’t a shoddy, “fly by night” money grab that interviews people with questionable credibility who have no connection to the artist. Two of the key people who were in the Rolling Stones’ inner circle in 1969 and who were at Altamont are interviewed for “Days of Rage”: former Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler and Ronnie Schneider, who was a producer of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour.

The quality of “Days of Rage” is on par with a news documentary on CNN or BBC. Much of the Rolling Stones archival video footage in the documentary is from ABKCO, the company that owns the rights to most of the band’s 1960s recordings and official video archives. There are also clips from Rolling Stones documentaries, such as “Gimme Shelter,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Stones in the Park.” Given that “Days of Rage” is a low-budget independent film, the filmmakers wouldn’t have been able to afford the rights to license original recordings of Rolling Stones songs for use in the documentary, so generic facsimile music is used as the soundtrack instead, except for one snippet of the original recording of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.”

The documentary also includes the expected representation of authors and journalists (a mix of Brits and Americans) who provide commentary. They include “The Rolling Stones Discover America” author Michael Lydon, who attended the Altamont concert as a journalist; Rolling Stone magazine contributor Anthony DeCurtis; journalist Nigel Williamson, who’s known for his work for Uncut and Billboard magazines; “Altamont” author Joel Selvin, who was the San  Francisco Chronicle’s pop-music critic from 1972 to 2009; Grateful Dead historian Peter Richardson; “Rolling Stones: Off the Record” author Mark Paytress; photographer Gered Mankowitz, who took some of the most iconic photos of the Rolling Stones in the 1960s; “1968 in America” author Joel Kaiser; and Keith Altham, who was a writer/editor at NME from 1964 to 1967, and who later became an entertainment publicist whose clients included the Rolling Stones. All of these talking heads provide articulate and insightful viewpoints. The documentary also benefits from the appealing British narration of Thomas Arnold.

The first third of the movie delves into the 1960s British Invasion (rock/pop acts from Great Britain taking over the American charts), the influential London youth culture, the Generation Gap and the Rolling Stones’ image as the rebellious antithesis to the more family-friendly Beatles. It was an image that was carefully crafted by Andrew Loog Oldham, a former publicist who was the Rolling Stones’ manager/producer from 1964 to 1967, when he was ousted in favor of American manager Allen Klein, whose background was in accounting. It was Klein who was a key player in the Rolling Stones getting lucrative record deals and becoming a top touring act, but he is described in most historical accounts of the Stones as a greedy bully who was involved in legal battles with the Stones for years after they fired him in 1969. (Klein, who died in 2009, founded the aforementioned ABKCO.)

The second third of the movie covers the rise of the counterculture in the mid-to-late 1960s, particularly in San Francisco, the home base of the Grateful Dead, which used Hell’s Angels gang members as peaceful security employees during the band’s concerts. (The Hell’s Angels were far from peaceful at Altamont.) All of these changes in society took place during the rise of LSD gurus Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary; California’s influential 1967 mass gatherings the Human Be-In (in San Francisco) and the Monterey Pop Festival; increasingly violent political protests; and the 1968 assassinations of civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

During this era, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (who had almost parallel careers in the 1960s) were part of the soundtracks to millions of people’s lives. The documentary notes the contrast between the two bands in the pivotal year of 1967: While the Beatles triumphed with the universally praised, artful masterpiece album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and with anthems such as “All You Need Is Love,” the Rolling Stones stumbled with the critically panned album “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and the sardonic “We Love You” single, which failed to resonate with audiences on a wide level. The Rolling Stones were further sidelined in 1967 by legal problems for lead singer Mick Jagger, rhythm guitarist Keith Richards (the two chief songwriters of the Rolling Stones) and lead guitarist Brian Jones, who all got busted for drugs, resulting in jail time and scandalous trials.

But with civil unrest happening in many parts of the world, the Stones returned with a vengeance to the top of their game, marking the beginning of what many music historians and Stones fans consider to be the band’s best and most creative period in the late 1960s to early 1970s. The zenith of the Rolling Stones began in 1968 with the release of the single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the “Beggars Banquet” album, which included other Stones classics such as “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.” By 1969, the Stones were ready to tour again, this time with new guitarist Mick Taylor, the replacement for Rolling Stones co-founder Jones, who died by drowning on June 3, 1969, less than a month after he left the band. It was the first major lineup change to the Rolling Stones since the band began making records in 1963. The lineup was rounded out by drummer Charlie Watts and bass player Bill Wyman.

The Rolling Stones’ first concert with Taylor was a massive free show (with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people in attendance) at London’s Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, with the concert’s focus changing into a tribute to Jones because of his unexpected death. Even though the Hyde Park show was generally considered one of the worst concerts the Rolling Stones ever performed (their playing was out-of-tune and ragged), the show was a peaceful event with security provided by the British Hell’s Angels. The Hyde Park concert planted the seed for the idea of the Rolling Stones headlining a similar gigantic free concert in America, especially after the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969 became a cultural phenomenon. The Rolling Stones did not perform at Woodstock or the Monterey Pop Festival, and the documentary mentions that Jagger was particularly keen on performing at a huge counterculture event in America.

And when the Grateful Dead’s co-manager Rock Scully suggested that the Rolling Stones headline a free, one-day, Woodstock-inspired festival in San Francisco, with security provided by the Hell’s Angels, plans were set in motion for the concert that would become Altamont. In addition to the Rolling Stones, other bands on the bill were the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and the quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. All four of these California-based acts except for CSN&Y member Neil Young had performed at Woodstock. The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” album (which included the classic single “Gimme Shelter”) was scheduled to be released just one day before the Altamont concert, which was essentially supposed to be a high-profile launching pad for the album.

The documentary points out that the British Hell’s Angels who provided security at the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert were pussycats compared to their violent counterparts in America. Selvin further notes that the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels that the Grateful Dead worked with were much more benevolent than the “thugs” of the San Jose chapter of the Hell’s Angels who ended up committing the majority of the mayhem at the Altamont concert. The festival was so mismanaged that it never would have happened by today’s standards, due to all the present-day safety/insurance requirements and liability prevention policies that most U.S. cities, concert venues and promoters have. Plans to have the concert at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco were scrapped after the city refused a permit because the park wasn’t large enough for the expected audience size. The concert location was then changed to Sears Point Raceway in suburban Sonoma, but two days before the show, that concert site was cancelled after the Sears Point Raceway owners demanded exorbitant fees that the concert promoters weren’t willing to pay.

Out of sheer desperation, the concert was moved to the Altamont Speedway in suburban Livermore. The site, which was in a state of disrepair, was woefully ill-equipped to handle the crowd of an estimated 300,000 people who showed up. There were major problems with inadequate space, sanitation, food and medical facilities. Making matters worse, the stage was dangerously close to the crowd. At the Sears Point Raceway, the stage had been safely located at the top of a steep incline, so it was inaccessible to the audience. At the Altamont Speedway, the opposite was true—the stage had to be built at the bottom of an incline—so it was very easy for audience members to slide down the incline and reach the bottom of the landfill pit where the stage was located. Attempts to put barricades around the incline proved to be ineffective.

Even with these production problems and the large quantities of illegal drugs taken by the audience, people interviewed in the documentary say that the concert would have been relatively peaceful if there hadn’t been a bad group of Hell’s Angels inflicting an excessive and disturbing amount of violence on innocent people. The documentary has a harrowing account of the inescapable sounds of people being beaten with pipes and other weapons by the gang members. And a few band members weren’t spared from the violence either. Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin was beaten when he tried to stop a Hell’s Angels assault. Jagger, upon arriving at the concert site, was punched in the face by a drugged-out audience member. Band members pleaded several times on stage for the violence to stop, but those pleas were essentially ignored, and it wasn’t unusual for a Hell’s Angel member to get up on stage and threaten the performers.

The Grateful Dead got so freaked out by the violence that they refused to perform and immediately left the area. Schneider, a nephew of former Rolling Stones manager Klein, was one of the chief people responsible for promoting the concert, and he partially blames the Grateful Dead for the escalating Altamont violence, because the band abandoned the show. Schneider believes that if the Grateful Dead had played, the band’s laid-back jamming would have mellowed out the audience. Instead, there was nothing to fill the long time gap left by the abrupt departure of the Grateful Dead, and the audience had to wait for hours before the Stones arrived, further ramping up the tensions and violence.

There are graphic descriptions of what happened during and after the murder of audience member Hunter. According to eyewitnesses, his bloodied body was shockingly placed on stage and then backstage during the Rolling Stones’ performance, in order for his body not to be further violated by the angry and out-of-control Hell’s Angels. These descriptions are not in the “Gimme Shelter” documentary, which rightfully edited out the most disturbing footage of the murder. (Hell’s Angel member Alan Passaro, who was arrested for the stabbing, claimed self-defense because Hunter had pulled out a gun. Passaro was later tried and acquitted of the murder in 1971.) Some of the commentators, especially Selvin, want it to be known that the Rolling Stones perpetuated a myth that the band didn’t know about the murder until after their performance. Selvin said that the lights were so bright on stage (since the concert was being filmed) and the audience was so close to the stage that it was impossible for people on stage not to see all the violence being committed just a few feet in front of them.

The documentary also includes a photo of Jagger looking at a group of people standing around what is said to be Hunter’s dead body on stage. According to Selvin, it was Jagger’s decision for the Rolling Stones to continue performing, even after Jagger knew that someone had been murdered during the band’s set. Since Jagger has not publicly discussed the murder in detail, and he’s not interviewed for this documentary, his side of the story isn’t presented. However, the implication from the Rolling Stones insiders (Cutler and Schneider) who were at the Altamont concert and who were interviewed for this film is that Jagger probably thought that the violence would get worse if the Stones didn’t finish their performance.

Richards briefly told his memories of Altamont in his 2010 memoir, “Life,” but he did not go into any of the gruesome details. Wyman (who quit the band in 1993) ended his 1990 memoir, “Stone Alone,” with the death of Jones, who died six months before Altamont happened. Wyman barely mentioned Altamont in his 2019 biographical documentary “The Quiet One.” Taylor (who quit the Rolling Stones in 1974) and Watts have also not opened up publicly about how much of the murder and body disposal they saw.

Even if you’re a die-hard Rolling Stones fan who’s read numerous accounts of the Altamont concert or if you’ve seen “Gimme Shelter,” watching “Days of Rage” will still make an impact in showing how the peace and love dream of the ’60s counterculture turned into a sickening and brutal nightmare that’s also a cautionary and very tragic tale.

Vision Films released “Days of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont” on VOD and digital on January 7, 2020.

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