Title: Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place
Directors: Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood
Coming off the success of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” author Ken Kesey in 1964 set off on a road trip across the United States with a bunch of like-minded friends — a renegade group of counter-culture truth-seekers known as the Merry Pranksters. The ostensible target or end-point destination of their journey was the World’s Fair in New York City, but in truth this, ahem, trip was as much about the hedonistic experience of the open road as it ever was about getting to the other side of the country. Poised somewhere between the beatnik and hippie generations, Kesey and his clan — including Neal Cassady, the central figure immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — intended to make a documentary about their expedition. “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place” is a rangy, messy sort of snapshot memoir of that unfinished work, pieced together under a spate of new and collected interviews by filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood.
A presentation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Magic Trip” is most notable as a historic document, since as a stand-alone movie it mainly succeeds in just making one never want to do drugs. At Stanford in 1959, Kesey volunteered to take part in what would later be revealed to be a CIA-funded study of psychoactive medications at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. He would trip through LSD, Psilocybin, mescaline and alpha-Methyltryptamines, among other substances, and some of the reel-to-reel audio recordings of those post-dosage discussion sessions (including one in which Kesey pontificates about the tape recorder’s reel serving as its brain) make for a trippy, slurry delight. The build-up to the road trip, too, is interesting, as Kesey and his pals purchase a big school bus, name it “Further,” remodel the interior, deck it out in wild colors, and even retrofit it with an exterior storage appendage and a sort of turret.
Soon we’re off, and on the road. Well… sort of. Kesey and company, totaling about 14 or 15 in all, run out of gas at the end of his property, which is perhaps an inauspicious and somewhat telling opening to their voyage. They finally get going, though, and the 16mm footage of their progress is often wild and weird. Since no one on the trip really knew how to use the camera (or the sound equipment, which was a big obstacle and the chief reason that their planned documentary never happened), there’s a decided lack of stuffy formalism or composition to the captured footage; it’s wildly subjective, but offers sometimes quickening glimpses into the mindsets (and maybe even souls) of those operating the camera at any given moment — zooming in on a fellow traveler’s ample bosom (presaging the “free love” movement, there was plenty of partner-swapping along the way), a befuddled gas station attendant, or the swirling detritus in a pool of water.
Possessing a handful of these sorts of unique moments, “Magic Trip” connects intermittently as a fascinating piece of captured history, a sort of “prima facie” document of the cresting impulses that would eventually take take form in the hippie movement of later in the 1960s and ’70s. Overall, though, it’s just a self-indulgent and kind of boring mess. Gibney and Ellwood don’t show their interview subjects, and while this tack sometimes works to the benefit of the material — most recently in “Senna,” for instance — here it has a distancing affect. Since so many culled interviews are from participants we see on screen in the captured footage, failing to show them robs the movie of a chance to carve out more discrete personalities. As a slice of Americana, there’s some measure of value to “Magic Trip,” but mostly it’s just another artifact of boomer self-obsession, and a reminder of their heavy hand in our current national predicaments.
Written by: Brent Simon