For decades, the celluloid footage Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters shot on their 1964 LSD-fueled bus ride has been something of an Oregon holy grail, a tantalizing 40-hour spool of moving history hidden in a barn in the hills outside Eugene. Suddenly, documentary prodigy Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9) got his mitts on the reels, and edited down the movie Kesey and company once thought would be the great American mind-expansion picture, if not for the drawback that it didn’t have synched sound recordings. Kesey biographer Mark Christensen has pointed out one reason the ambitious project failed: “Making a great movie about the wonders of acid while on acid is tough.” Now we have Magic Trip, and a second piece of bad news: Watching a movie about the wonders of acid while not on acid is even tougher.
The effect of Magic Trip, I’m afraid, is much like returning to your boundless childhood playground and discovering it’s 1 square acre. Watching Kesey and Neal Cassady and “Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen” cavorting around the Furthur bus on what must have been very expensive color film stock, one is reminded that these were mostly farm kids with a domineering wrestler-writer for a guru. The Pranksters’ red-and-white-striped shirts look suspiciously like the band uniforms in The Music Man. You may be struck with the feeling that somewhere along the journey, American history was hijacked by rubes.
Editing is brisk, however, and several animated sequences set to recordings of government acid-test subjects suggest how strong an influence LSD was on Tool videos and Sesame Street. Archival interviews with Pranksters are often whitewashed, but from my miserable experience trying to get these people on the record, it’s impressive that Gibney and co-director Alison Ellwood got this much candid material.
But they’ve gained access in exchange for some skepticism. Often, Magic Trip floats the suggestion that the Furthur ride was politically transformative, and a lost idyll never again enjoyed. Here’s the thing: It doesn’t seem like that great a trip. They went to a pond. They threw some paint in the pond. I can only imagine how it all looked unedited. This would have been a terrible movie. Tom Wolfe made it seem transformative, but he wasn’t on the bus. Maybe you had to not be there. R.
62 SEE IT: Magic Trip opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.