Sundance Review: Magic Trip
Seminal images from Woodstock abound. But what sparked the famed Summer of Love? When did sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll first start to coalesce? Where did hippies come from? Magic Trip, directed by Alison Ellwood and Paste’s 2010 Person of the Year in Documentary Film Alex Gibney, is a vibrant time capsule, a treasure trove of images from Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters’ cross-country trek to the 1964 World’s Fair. It bridges the gap between the Beat Generation of the ’50s and the acid rock that followed in the ’60s. Magic Trip puts viewers on the psychedelic bus, crowned Further, in search of America in transition. An amateur home movie captures a cultural turning point.
Having already established his literary credentials penning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey decided, “If Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn’t use a quill pen.” With no training in how to use a film camera, Kesey and his crew decided to document their trip from California to New York. Unfortunately, the resulting footage of legends like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg was largely out of sync and out of focus. It lingered as an unfinished mess—until now. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood waded through the hours of footage to create a Magic Trip.
The film opens with psychedelic images of colorful, real life characters like Mal Function, Gretchen Fetchen, Generally Famished and Stark Naked. Surprisingly, though, the Merry Pranksters dress like preppy college kids. They fly the flag, wear red, white and blue, and play trombones and flutes. Their soundtrack is more soul classics than guitar jams. Their “subversive” behavior seems downright innocent by subsequent standards. So what fueled the Further?
Magic Trip’s most impressive sequence takes us inside Stanford University labs, where the C.I.A. was conducting experiments using LSD. Kesey dropped acid under the government’s eye. Soon an All-American wrestler was obsessed with expanding consciousness. We hear Kesey’s ravings on tape with appropriately eerie imagery. Bats, hexagons, strobe lights and mummies flow from his mind’s eye. Magic Trip also contains footage of the Prankster’s acid-drenched dip into an Arizona pond. The first tie-dye shirts are created. The ’60s as we now remember them unfurl before our eyes.
Shades of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights marches sneak into the narrative, but the journey feels remarkably free from such seminal concerns. Some may see it as a self-indulgent trip, a summer long boondoggle only available to suburban kids with sufficient funds. The East Coast experiments of Dr. Timothy Leary feel stodgy in comparison to the Pranksters’ free spirits. The sight of the psychedelic bus brings out the best of New York City. Kids chase Further down the street, eager to join the party.
By the time they arrive at the World’s Fair, the magic seems to have dissipated. While Dupont promised “Better Living Through Chemistry,” the World of Tomorrow didn’t offer nearly as much fun as promised. Even Jack Kerouac seemed weary of the Pranksters’ antics. Having driven the group across the country in a speed-fueled blur, Neal Cassady got off the bus. Magic Trip suggests that the destination shifted from a physical place to psychic space. The last third of the documentary follows the migration of the acid tests from Kesey’s farm to Santa Cruz and finally to San Francisco. Those curious how The Grateful Dead became the ultimate jam band will discover “what a long strange trip it’s been.”
Directors Gibney and Ellwood are to be commended for assembling what we had only imagined via Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Magic Trip is a loving tribute to Ken Kesey’s restless spirit. Yet, the filmmakers’ respect for the man and the era push Magic Trip toward museum piece rather than chaotic adventure. It evokes more of the Merry than the Pranks. We see each stop along the journey, but those born after the era may still wonder, “What’s the big deal?” Magic Trip will inspire Day-Glo tinged nostalgia for some, a mystifying “much ado about not much” for others. It’s a colorful, cultural Rorschach test. The Merry Pranksters mark the moment when the responsible ’50s crashed into the free form ’60s. Establishment edged into anarchy. And we’ve been arguing about whether it was the best of times or the worst of times ever since.