Alex Gibney and his usual editor Alison Ellwood (scoring her first directorial credit) have conspired to assemble something like a coherent documentary out of the 100-plus hours of film shot by Ken Kesey and his band of “Merry Pranksters” detailing their bus trip across America in 1964. The results are Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place—and it’s as flawed as the whole idea of the trip and very nearly as fascinating. It serves as a kind of DayGlo-colored time capsule that tantalizes, occasionally informs and has all the anarchic lack of discipline of Bob Dylan’s notorious Renaldo and Clara (1978)—even after being cut down and somewhat cohered.
Even at 107 minutes, the film starts to wear out its welcome (why do documentarians so rarely seem to know when to stop?) and it’s doubtful that it actually proves its case that Kesey and company “invented” the 1960s. But no matter: What it does prove—if proof was needed—is that there’s nothing quite as non-profound as listening to people on drugs prattle on while convinced of their own profundity. But that’s part and parcel of the whole thing—a group of unfocused people off in search of enlightenment and a goal they can’t even verbalize, even if they claim they’re “looking for America.”
The idea—loosely defined—behind it all was that Kesey and a group of friends, lovers and hangers-on would all pile into this psychedelically painted 1939 schoolbus—outfitted as a kind of camper—and travel from California to the New York World’s Fair. Kesey’s big inspiration was that it should all be filmed (and apparently there was some thought that a viable movie would emerge, especially once they got to their destination). It was, in his mind, something beyond writing about. (Of course, Tom Wolfe would write about it in his “nonfiction novel” The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968.) Those familiar with Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) will recognize this as the real life counterpart to the Dr. Robert (Bono) section of her film.
Yes, the idea was screwy—a bunch of people riding across the country dropping acid, hanging out and goofing on people along the way. What’s remarkable is that they made it (well, most of them did anyway), especially since it was somehow decided that Neal Cassady—the speed-addicted inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—would be the driver. This plainly did not bode well—nor did the fact that they ran out of gas almost immediately upon starting. In short, none of this could be called well-planned. But then the fact that people with only the sketchiest notions of operating the camera and sound equipment were going to make this into a movie was something of a chuckleheaded idea to start with.
That Gibney and Ellwood were able to cut this into anything worth watching is remarkable. Amazingly, they did—however flawed. Whatever Magic Trip doesn’t do by way of explaining the 1960s (if they can or need to be explained), it does create something of a bridge between the Beat Generation and the counterculture of the ‘60s. It also shows (much as Taymor claims in Across the Universe) that right, wrong or simply addled, Kesey and his Pranksters were ahead of the curve, since this brightly hued artifact looks a lot less like the 1964 in which it occurred, and a lot more like 1967—warts and all. Rated R for drug content, language and some nudity.