“When did the 60s begin? That might seem obvious…but really it was a very black and white world…” Thus begins Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place. Most people think of the era as drug suffused, rock n’roll-centric, tie dyed, flower-powered chaos. In 1964 Ken Kesey and his ragtag band of counter-culture friends took a joy ride cross country to The World’s Fair in a wildly painted and refitted 1939 International Harvester school bus named Furthur (combining further and future.) No one took them for hippies because the term hadn’t been coined yet. “It was like we were in an aquarium, on the other side of the glass. No one felt the least bit threatened,” Kesey recalled.
Kennedy had been assassinated, Barry Goldwater was running for president, and Martin Luther King won The Nobel Peace Prize. Elvis Presley released his fourteenth record album; Greenwich Village was filled with folksingers; and The Beatles were on their way. To the Herculean task of restoration involving over 100 hours of 16 mm film and audio tapes made by stoned amateurs, filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have successfully added the placement of this iconic trip in context. It’s something of a revelation.
One of the biggest surprises of Magic Trip is the first glimpse of The Merry Pranksters and of Kesey himself. Already successful with the book and play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the ersatz leader was not yet thirty. Except for Neil Cassidy (photo, above, inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriorty from On the Road and an amphetamine addict) who served as driver and something of an errant father figure, they were straight, clean scrubbed, short-haired, attractive people out for an exploratory goof. That the journey was fueled by copious amounts of hallucinogens doesn’t dispute the fact that these were well meaning, optimistic, regular folks. It would only be a year before Time Magazine would identify this new sub culture as “expatriates living on our shores but beyond our society” while historian Arnold Toynbee described them as “a red warning light for the American way of life.” Remember?
The buoyant spirits of the group can only be matched by their original, indomitably cheerful looking transportation. Whether you were a kid, a hippie or a distant observer at the time, or have only heard about Kesey (left) and his trip, the joyful benevolent mess of the early part of the film can only be contagious. Deftly piecing together old footage with stills and original recordings with modern actors reenacting the words of the Pranksters (the audio having been too scratchy,) Gibney and Ellwood make you feel as if you’re on the trip with Intrepid Traveler, Generally Famished (because she was pregnant), Gretchen Fetchen, Stark Naked (because she often was), and the others. It’s an immersion experience. Stanley Tucci’s periodic narration and voice-over interviews of the travelers is written to perfectly preface actual responses.
There are mishaps, of course—people couple and uncouple, a few choose not to make the return trip, one is briefly institutionalized. When, at intervals, police pull them over, drugs are quickly stashed. It simply never occurs to the cops to look for illicit substances. A visit to Timothy Lear’s compound, Millbrook, is a failure, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who appear at a party, are less forthcoming than expected, and The World’s Fair is a disappointment. One of many terrific pieces of newsreel footage shows a musical number on a stage at the Dupont pavilion promoting better living through chemistry. Uh huh. Signs of fraying and fatigue are apparent by the time the bus reaches New York and the return trip is anti-climactic. Alison Ellwood’s on-point editing of interviews allows us to hear the real reflections of the Pranksters, even and especially when they don’t jell with what we’re seeing on screen. The film offers a balanced, nonjudgmental view, skewed only by the characters themselves.
Graphics by Imaginary Forces are comic book influenced, often hand-drawn frame to frame, eminently appropriate, and fun. Conjectured visuals for transformations perceived during acid trips work well for being less high-tech than so many we’ve seen. A sense of wry humor is evident throughout these additions.
Music Supervisor, John McCullough, has done an adroit job with the soundtrack. When the bus takes off, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” is the perfect choice, a song of the times with an image that’s clearly not, the straight and narrow underscoring a freewheeling status-quo- busting excursion. We hear soul, folk, pop, and what passed for rock at the time, all indicative of the action and tongue in cheek without interfering. Early archival footage of The Grateful Dead, the Pranksters adoptive band, seems almost retrospectively sweet in its innocence.
Magic Trip is arguably a rather important reconstruction of an iconic event. It’s evocative, illuminating, thought provoking, and entertaining. Unfortunately, the filmmakers, perhaps besotted with the wealth and historical interest of the material at their disposal, have let the piece go on too long. This is clearly not just about the trip that might’ve turned a tide. After the Pranksters return, we’re shown the inadvertent origin and eventual demise of Kesey’s “Acid Tests” (drug filled raves), his ironic arrest on possession of marijuana and subsequent jailing, and a glimpse of the way he lived out his life on the farm with his wife and family. Some of this could’ve been left out completely, some condensed. By the time we’ve taken the trip, the audience is road weary. Two last moments however, are pointedly marvelous: Kesey leading a chorus of The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” at what looks like a town meeting and a long, slow, autopsy-like view of the disintegrating bones of Furthur, left to rot in a back field. Though editing would make it more successful, this is a film with a potent tale to tell.
Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place
Directed by Alex Gibney/Alison Ellwood
Screenplay by Alex Gibney/Alison Ellwood
Based on the words and recordings of Ken Kesey
Opening in New York City August 2011