In 1964, author Ken Kesey took off on an LSD-fuelled cross-country road trip to the New York World’s Fair. He was joined by 'The Merry Band of Pranksters", a renegade group of counterculture truthseekers. Kesey and the Pranksters intended to make a documentary about their trip, but the film was never finished and the footage has remained virtually unseen. Utilising unprecedented access to this raw footage, Magic Trip provides a glimpse into this legendary road trip.

Narrated by Stanley Tucci.

Radical road trip doco takes the narrow path.

: Sometimes the attraction of certain archival material can blind a documentarian to the limits of what can be done with it; the possibilities overwhelm the practicalities. In the case of Magic Trip, directors Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side) and Alison Ellwood (Gibney’s frequent editor) have extensive footage from the 1964 bus journey across America by author Ken Kesey and his self-styled band of 'Merry Pranksters". This, for many historians, is the ground zero of 1960s counterculture, the LSD-fueled adventure that gave birth to the hippie movement and everything that subsequently entailed for American life.

But as detailed as the mostly unseen footage is (although not the audio, the Merry Pranksters shot everything with the sound out of synch) it’s verging on narrow in focus, with the several diversions authored into the documentary proving informative but not illuminating. Perhaps what this trip really meant was in the example it set to others, or at least how their successors interpreted what happened on the road from La Honda in California to New York City. But the actual minutiae is something less: 10 minutes of people wandering around on acid, pouring paint in the water and tripping after the bus gets bogged, isn’t crucial viewing almost 50 years on.

Gibney, who is perhaps becoming too prolific for his own good, and Ellwood do a resolute job of setting the scene, particularly with their sketching in of the charismatic Kesey, whose first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was already a hit. The 29-year-old former all-American boy (he’d married his college sweetheart) and his pals, including former U.S. Army chopper pilot Ken Babbs, who was just back from Vietnam, were post-beatnik and pre-hippie. They aspired to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which is probably why they allowed rambling speed freak Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Kerouac’s iconic Dean Moriarty, to drive their bus for 24 hours at a stretch.

Kesey, looking for a new artistic voice and favouring film over literature, considered himself the quarterback of reality, and the journey was more about having fun than anarchic energy. With their comparatively short hair and American flags, they’re more eccentric addendums to the essentially conservative early 1960s, and despite neat touches such as using a tape Kesey made while undertaking LSD experiments for the U.S. government ($25 a day and he lectures the tape recorder), the lack of outside voices or commentary makes few of the possible cultural and social links apparent. The commentary recorded post-journey is short on insight and long on spiritual evaluation: 'the algae was talking to me," remembers one prankster of swimming while high.

Fans of Kesey’s work, or those with an interest in the era, will obviously be taken with Magic Trip, but the casual viewer might feel as if these are elegantly presented home movies. (Stanley Tucci is the cultured voice of 'The Interviewer", but there’s a lifetime between his questions and the answers they’ve subsequently been attached to.) As intimate and authentic as the footage is, it hasn’t given the filmmakers a take on how this distinctly white and middle-class collective related to black America, then in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, while the relationships between men and women on the bus were not always as casual as the these inventors of cool might have wanted to represent.

Still, the undercurrents are worth pursuing. When Kesey, in 1964, asks, 'What happens if all this stuff being sold to us has closed the door on anything new?" he could be blogging from 2011. He eventually parted ways with the Merry Pranksters, a manic 61 strong, after Woodstock, and concentrated on raising his children. And if anything Magic Trip suggests the beginning of this eventual separation, not a triumph.


1 hour 47 min
Wed, 02/08/2012 - 11