Using a colorful, freewheeling style, “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place” chronicles the eponymous author’s famously rambunctious cross-country road-trip in 1964. Dismayed by the conformism of suburban, capitalistic America and by the violence up-ending the nation’s cultural life (Vietnam, the Kennedy Assassination, etc.), Kesey – the acclaimed scribe behind “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” – and a crew of ragtag friends, including celebrated speed-freak Neal Cassady – converted a ramshackle school bus into a multi-colored “Pleasure Palace” and took to the road. Their destination: the World’s Fair in New York City.
Equipped with 16mm cameras and sound equipment, the group – which dubbed itself the Merry Band of Pranksters – set out to make both a cinematic scrapbook of their journey and a freeform collage of America as they felt and experienced it. In spite of forty years of trying to assemble all the footage together into a coherent whole, the Pranksters’ cinematic record never became a finished piece.
In “Magic Trip,” writer-directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood use the existing footage to present a chronology of Kesey and company’s journey. Voice-over actors playing each of the Pranksters narrate the unfolding story, providing captions, so to speak, of the mayhem up on the screen – from police stops and bus breakdowns to roadside acid trips and detours to check in with Larry McMurtry and Timothy Leary. There are interesting cameos by a disinterested, beer-swilling Jack Kerouac and a game, cheerful Allen Ginsberg, all of it part of a vivid and adoring evocation of an oft-celebrated era.
“Magic Trip” frames itself around Kesey’s use of LSD, beginning with his participating in government-run LSD experiments as a Stanford student and continuing through his peak years as literary icon of the counterculture. But, as all stories about mavericks go, The Man eventually caught up with Kesey: He was arrested for marijuana possession and his drug use became the subject of public scrutiny. Kesey served jail time, started warning kids about the dangers of LSD and retired to a quiet, off-the-radar life in Oregon.
The message of disillusionment, of romantic ideals compromised runs throughout “Magic Trip,” through the Pranksters’ various voice-over confessions. But where Gibney and Ellwood err is in believing that youthful disillusionment or the story of the 1960’s is somehow compelling in and of itself. But it isn’t.
Our cultural narrative is, by now, stuffed to the gills with stories of how special the 1960s were, and “Magic Trip” really banks on viewers becoming automatically charmed by the material per se – this is a unique historical artifact, to be sure, but one which reveals nothing exceptional about the personalities, the times or the themes explored.
We don’t need the Pranksters to tell us life is full of shattered dreams, reality checks and compromises. When the Pranksters reach New York City and attend the World’s Fair, are we to be surprised or saddened that the destination just isn’t what it was cracked up to be? That life is about the journey not the destination is not a novel idea and the 1960s hardly have a monopoly on it. Purveyors of the 1960s need to understand that acid-tripping Pranksters on a road-trip in a psychedelic school-bus are a goofy representation of a vibrant time, but, frankly, nothing that anyone does or discovers here over the course of the “Magic Trip’s” tedious 107 minutes is really that revelatory of the human condition or the ‘60s themselves.
Written/Directed by: Alex Gibney & Alison Ellwood
Cast: Stanley Tucci (Interviewer), Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, The Merry Band of Pranksters, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg