Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place: Film Review

Return to the psychedelic ‘60s in this documentary featuring long- lost footage of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.

Revelatory, recently discovered home movie footage of a 1964 cross-country bus trip undertaken by author Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters provide a vivid portrait of the journey.

NEW YORK — It’s appropriate that the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ is heard over the end credits of Magic Trip, about the 1964 cross-country bus trip undertaken by author Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters. “What a long strange trip it’s been” perfectly describes the bizarre journey on display in the revelatory footage that has been lovingly assembled by documentarians Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and Alison Ellwood.

The backstory behind the film is as compelling as the events it depicts. Kesey -- best known for his novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion — decided to document visually the trip since, as he puts it in one of the many archival interviews included in the film: “If Shakespeare were alive today I don’t think he would use a quill pen.”

The some 100 hours of ramshackle, amateurishly shot 16mm footage went virtually unseen until Kesey’s death in 2001. Among the problems facing Gibney and Ellwood upon its reconstruction was the fact that there was virtually no sound synchronization.

Despite the obstacles involved, the filmmakers have done a credible job of editing the footage into something reasonably coherent. Using audio interviews conducted with several of the Pranksters some 10 years after their trip — augmented by interwoven “questions” posed by narrator Stanley Tucci — they provide a vivid portrait of the journey previously profiled in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Anyone interested in the era will be fascinated by the footage of the Pranksters, whose ranks included such colorfully nicknamed figures as “Generally Famished,” “Hardly Visible,” “Zonker” and “Stark Naked.” But the most compelling figure on display is Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s classic On the Road. Muscular and movie-star handsome, the charismatic Cassady drives the psychedelically painted 1939 bus dubbed “Further” while delivering a constant rapid-fire stream of amphetamine fueled commentary.

But the drug of choice for the group was LSD, which provides fodder for some of the film’s more colorful episodes, such as when the stoned Pranksters drove their bus backwards down a Phoenix street while pretending to campaign for right wing Republican candidate Barry Goldwater for president, and an animated sequence depicting Kesey’s tripping on acid during a government sponsored experiment.

Of course, drugs are much more fun for the person using them than spectators, which leads to the film’s major flaw. Much of the footage on display consists of the Pranksters behaving in generally silly, stoned, sloppy fashion, with the result that the proceedings come to resemble a rambling home movie that was clearly more fun to make than it is to watch. The filmmakers’ fidelity to their source material is admirable, but more historical context could have made this Trip as illuminating as it is magical.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 5 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production: History Films, Optimum Releasing, Imaginary Forces, Jigsaw Productions
Directors/screenwriters: Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood
Producers: Will Clarke, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes
Executive producers: David McKillop, Molly Thompson, Robert Belau, David Kowitz, Gareth Wiley
Editor: Alison Ellwood
Music: David Kahne
Rated R, 107 minute