More than 40 years after author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters shot footage of their madcap and momentous psychedelic cross-country bus trip, writer-directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have crafted a documentary from the shelved film project, which Kesey and company abandoned due to technical issues (and the hampering effects of something in the orange juice).
The result is “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place,” a DIY-styled counterculture cocktail that contains improved footage, interview material, photographs and trippy animation.
While failing to adequately explore the significance of the journey involved, the film is a worthy document of the 1964 event and a loopily enjoyable visit to the inception of hippiedom.
With Kesey behind the vision and Beat notable Neal Cassady behind the wheel, the conformity-busting trek took place on a school bus that Kesey’s Prankster pals painted psychedelically and christened Further.
Kesey conceived the ride — from Oregon to the World’s Fair in New York City — as an opportunity both to have immense fun and to achieve something psychically meaningful. In both arenas, LSD figured in copiously.
Chronicling the journey, Gibney and Ellwood cover adventures, encounters and Further antics — everything from getting stopped by cops to culture-clashing with East Coast-styled acid guru Timothy Leary. A few Pranksters leave the drug- and sex-filled bus for saner pastures (or, in one case, a psychiatric ward).
Frustrations aren’t few. The filmmakers don’t entirely lick the problem of the audio deficiencies in the original material. With the exception of Kesey, whom the movie profiles throughout, and Cassady, whose speed-fueled monologues distinguish him from the others, the various personalities are hardly defined.
While the film serves up, amusingly, the odyssey’s nutty facets, it falls short with the consequential aspects of the bus trip, a project that Kesey, who wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” later describes as his “greatest work.”
But there is still much to appreciate and relish in this mix of valuable cultural document and acid-laced home movie. While the subject has been detailed before (in Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” most memorably), to witness the merrymakers in action is a kick.
The nugget moments, which include the bus driving backward on a Phoenix street and the sky-high bunch inadvertently inventing tie-dyeing, are precious. The more mundane antics add up to what, importantly, suggests an accurate picture of what the familiar lyrics on the soundtrack describe as a “long strange trip.”
In all, Gibney, affirming his excavation skills, and Ellwood, making her feature directorial debut, leave viewers feeling informed, entertained and a wee bit elevated after spending 107 minutes with these superior goofballs. Hop aboard.
Magic Trip ???
With Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Merry Pranksters
Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood
Running time 1 hour 47 minutes