Review: Magic Trip (2011)

Magic Trip (2011)

Directed by: Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood | 107 minutes | documentary| Starring: Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Jerry Garcia, Ram Dass, Ken Babbs, Phil Lesh, Paula Sundsen, Bill Kreutzmann, Kathy Casamo, Ron McKernan, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Jane Burton, George Walker, Steve Lambrecht, John Babbs

In 1964, Ken Kesey (writer of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion”) and his Merry Band of Pranksters, including Neal Cassady (who in turn modeled Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s cult classic “On the Road ”) a trip across America. Starting point was La Honda (California). The (geographical) goal was the World Fair in New York. The medium was an International Harvester, a bus painted in psychedelic colors and shapes, which provided accommodation for the large group of people and film and sound equipment. The intention was to document the entire journey – as a kind of reality TV program avant la lettre. It yielded about tens of hours of raw material, which Kesey showed several times after that legendary trip to a select audience (at gatherings called The Acid Test, with the house band The Grateful Dead). But the real film never came, because according to Kesey, who died in 2001, it was impossible to forge this into a compact whole. Fortunately, Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood (of the Oscar-winning documentary ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’) came across the material many years later and were able to distance themselves enough from what was filmed. Their work on the many hours of filming resulted in the often entertaining and always historically interesting ‘Magic Trip’.

‘Magic Trip’ shows us images of a group of people that most people only know from paper (eg from Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). The perspective, the viewer is almost part of the Merry Pranksters, is the strength of the film. Neal Cassady, who is mainly known for being charismatic, who acts as a driver for a large part of the trip, turns out to be a huge talkative, with whom it must be quite exhausting. The group visits Jack Kerouac (who doesn’t really click); Allen Ginsberg makes a brief appearance and we witness the encounter of the Merry Pranksters with Richard Alpert (better known as Ram Dass). The group also visits Larry McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show”.

The guiding principle in the era that ‘Magic Trip’ shows is the political state of America (John F. Kennedy was just assassinated) and the rise and use of LSD. Ken Kesey first encountered LSD in 1959, in experiments funded by the CIA while in college. The CIA wanted to use the drug for questioning suspects, as a truth serum. The images of Kesey’s hallucinations are nicely animated, and funny, but you probably have to be intoxicated to appreciate the full length of this scene: it goes on a bit too long. And so there are more fragments in ‘Magic Trip’ that will not appeal to everyone, not only because of the home video quality of the images but also because of the sometimes rather soap-like content (jealousy and adultery reigned supreme on the bus). In addition, it is sometimes laughable how the Pranksters experience their ‘life-enriching’ LSD trips. Nevertheless, historically there is always something of value in the images, such as when intoxicated Pranksters use paint and water to create the first tie-dye shirt in history. And it is also significant that the group is often stopped by the police, but always when the cameras are removed from the bus, they are allowed to continue driving, despite the presence of drugs on board.

The work Gibney and Ellwood and the rest of the team put into making “Magic Trip” is admirable. In fact, it’s actually a miracle that the film even came out. Not only was the source material badly damaged and it took over a year to restore the film, many of the fragments didn’t seem to match the audio tracks, so it was a huge puzzle to match. Also special are the comments by the Pranksters, which were recorded in the 1970s and who, instead of the usual talking heads, give their vision of the images. It fits perfectly with the atmosphere. It would also be quite interesting to see what the Pranksters would look like now, but the makers have chosen to show the group more or less as an entity. There is hardly any introduction to the individual characters, apart from the real names and their nicknames, such as Intrepid Traveller, Generally Famished, Gretchen Fetchin, Stark Naked and Zonker. Their mutual relationship, profession or motivation to go along is often not mentioned. That’s unfortunate, but not insurmountable.

‘Magic Trip’ is not a must-see for everyone, but if you want to know more about the birth of the 1960s culture and the history of the United States during that period, this excellently made documentary is definitely recommended. Combine it with ‘On the Road’ (2012) by Walter Salles and ‘The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD’ (2011) and you can almost call yourself an expert.

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