I would be willing to wager that nearly everyone at Cornell, or of collegiate age, has been in some sort of social setting with that guy or girl who reminisces on the freewheeling, youthful spirit of the 1960s. He or she might tell you about the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, about the CIA’s experiments with LSD, or maybe they’ll tell you about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. The thing is, usually you don’t know that they’re talking about, and neither do they. They weren’t there.
Magic Trip, a new documentary by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, takes viewers onboard the bus “Further” with Ken Kesey and the Pranksters on their journey from La Honda, California to the 1964 New York World’s Fair and back again. As you might expect from a group this irresponsible, the original 16mm footage of the trip was lost and needed restoration. Likewise, audio tape recordings and voiceovers had to be brought back into sync with the original footage.
Despite all of the challenges presented with bringing film like this to the screen, Magic Trip manages to look crisp and colorful. It is evocative of the hipster-handicam style long before there were handicams or hipsters. Making a point of comparing the black and white world of the 1950s to the world of the 1960s, the film features striking shots of this fluorescent school bus and its colorful inhabitants against the beige desert, or the grey background of New York City. Filmmakers looking to make a historical film that looks good by modern standards should take note, as this is how it’s done.
The audio is hit-or-miss, however. One of the best scenes of this movie is a long audio recording of Ken Kesey as a graduate student during an LSD experiment at Stanford. The recording plays behind a trippy animated sequence synchronized to Kesey’s words. This is the high point, so to speak. On the downside, most of the video clips have audio that is completely out of sync or missing altogether, and at times it removes the viewer from the weird realm that the directors spend so long trying to draw them into.
It seems that the directors’ hope for this documentary was that the footage would somehow reaffirm Kesey and the Pranksters as psychedelic revolutionaries and forerunners of 1960s drug culture. Most people, however, will get the sense after watching this film that they only watched a small group of people take lots of LSD and drive across the country for two hours. Great fiction writers follow the principle of “Show, don’t tell,” yet this film and the voiceovers constantly tell the viewer that what the Pranksters were doing was revolutionary and unprecedented without really showing it.
Yet somewhere in the film, a different picture emerges of the Pranksters. Neal Cassady, bus driver and inspiration behind Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, sits behind the wheel and speaks a constant, manic, speed-induced nonsense. Stark Naked, one of a few interesting Pranksters with nicknames, stands stark naked on the back of the bus under the influence of tremendous amounts of LSD. Kerouac himself is featured sitting on a couch during a Prankster party, somewhat amused but visibly annoyed at the band of lunatics his work has spawned. While Tom Wolfe may have captured Kesey and the Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the movie brings in a visual element to this story that cannot be ignored. For all of the effort made to make them appear as revolutionaries, most of the Pranksters appear on film as a group of weird kids.
Understandably, Magic Trip focuses more on Ken Kesey as the pensive, de facto leader of the psychedelic movement. Coming from a traditional all-American background, wrestling and playing college football at Oregon, to writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 and beginning this trip two years later, Kesey is deserving of the study Magic Trip represents. Seeing Kesey move “beyond Acid” is equally interesting, and provides for a nice final few scenes of the film.
So while Magic Trip may not be the most effective cultural study of the 1960s, or even the psychedelic movement, there is enough previously-unseen footage of Kesey and his cohorts out of place in America to make this film worth a look. Kesey once said he was “too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie.” Fans who want a closer look into this transition period will enjoy Magic Trip for the long, strange trip it chronicles.