'Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary': Film Review

CNS Communications
Groovy, man.

Gay Dillingham's documentary chronicles the relationship between the two 1960s counterculture icons.

Gay Dillingham's documentary about Ram Dass and Timothy Leary feels like it's arriving 20 years too late. Chronicling the lives and careers of its 1960s counterculture iconic subjects, Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Lear has lost some of its intended urgency. Nonetheless, this film focusing on their complicated relationship and enduring legacies is both informative and moving.  

The doc revolves around a filmed conversation between the two men that was arranged by the filmmaker following Leary's 1995 public announcement that he was dying of prostate cancer. The reunion is deeply touching, with Leary discussing his terminal condition with his usual mixture of frankness and humor and Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) unabashedly expressing his affection for his old friend with whom he had a sometimes contentious relationship.

To put things in context, Dying to Know presents an engaging if sometimes scattershot recounting of their backstories. They were both professors at Harvard University when Leary first ingested magic mushrooms at age 40, describing it as a "life-changing experience." Each did extensive research on its principal chemical ingredient, psilocybin, and eventually moved on to LSD, then a legal substance. (An amusing animated segment depicts the first LSD trip, experienced during a bicycle ride by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman after he had experimentally given himself a dose.)

Leary, of course, went on to be one of the drug's leading exponents, becoming famous for his advice to "turn on, tune in, drop out" and incurring the wrath of President Richard Nixon, who called him "the most dangerous man in the country." Alpert, who assumed the name Ram Dass after a spiritual epiphany in India, became a prominent spiritual figure and author of the best-selling book Be Here Now, which is described in the doc as "seminal."

The film's main focus, however, is to spotlight Leary's typically iconoclastic attitude about his impending demise. Describing the subject of death as "the ultimate taboo," he's seen in interviews, frail and gaunt, relating the experience as just one of life's adventures. Still, it's hard not to chuckle when narrator Robert Redford comments, without a trace of irony, that Leary is "in the final moments of his current incarnation."

Distributor-production company: CNS Communications
Director: Gay Dillingham
Screenwriter: David Leach
Producers: Gay Dillingham, Tao Ruspoli
Executive producers: Rena Shulsky David, Sam S. David, Sarah E. Johnson, Carla Kleefeld, Dal Lamagna, Andrew Ungerleider
Directors of photography: David Aubrey, Alan Kozlowski, Tao Ruspoli, Dyanna Taylor
Editors: Ethan Boehme, David Leach
Composer: Steve Postell

Not rated, 95 minutes