You either look at Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters as a bunch of hippies tripped out on acid, or a bunch of American originals … still tripped out on acid.
Either way, LSD is involved.
In Magic Trip, which was recently released on DVD, directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have created a vibrant tribute to Kesey and his legendary cross-country road trip in the 1960s. Using archival footage that Kesey and company shot on the road, the filmmakers are able to resurrect a bygone era where independence and freedom were promoted and practiced. It’s a testament to the power of visual imagery and do-it-yourself filmmaking.
Because much of the footage is rough around the edges — featuring out-of-sync dialogue and sometimes unfocused visuals — Gibney and Ellwood smartly take over the reins of the documentary and instill a sense of purpose to the proceedings. Rather than just splicing together a highlights film, the archival footage serves as a jumping-off point for the exploration of Kesey as a counter-cultural icon.
To mold everything together, the directors add in their own questions and commentary, guiding Kesey’s vision along to fruition. Stanley Tucci offers some narration help as well.
The end result is a kaleidoscopic view of Americana: a rare look into the minds, sentiments and activities of a group of protestors who had no idea they were even protesting.
The lifestyle that is depicted is one of vivid living. These Pranksters aren’t lazy or destructive; they’re thoughtful, happy and seemingly fulfilled. Kesey serves as their ringleader, the man with the plan.
Although there are many detours and obstacles along the way, the road trip generally follows the path from San Francisco through America’s South and then northward to New York City. The beacon on the hill is the World’s Fair in Queens, a festival the Pranksters set out to enjoy. From there, it was back to California, back to reality.
Along the way, old faces drop out of the trip and new ones emerge. Everything and everyone revolves around Kesey and his new definition for achieving the American dream. This is like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, part two. Heck, Neal Cassady is even along for the ride.
The conversations on the road are still enjoyable, some 50 years after the fact. These icons discuss everything from politics to drugs to family life to patriotism. As one character puts it, they are too young to hang with the Beats and too old to be hippies. They are their own generation, exploring society and enjoying one another’s company.
Kesey becomes the most finely focused character among the trippers. We learn about his early days of LSD experimentation, his work in an insane asylum, his thoughts on the movie adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and his constant searching for the inner purpose of what this cross-country trek meant. He also comes across as a devoted family man with a level head and undying love for his wife and children.
Throughout the melee, LSD proves to be the connective tissue. Everyone takes acid during the film and much of Magic Trip is devoted to exploring what a “trip” feels like. It never glorifies the drug — in fact, many of the Pranksters were instrumental in getting Californians off LSD.
What makes the documentary so visceral for a 2011 audience is the fact that it doesn’t wax nostalgic about Kesey and the Pranksters. This isn’t a love letter to a better time. Instead, it’s a story told with vitality and virtually no filtration.
It’s life on the road — raw and uncut.By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Written and directed by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood; based on the words and recordings of Ken Kesey
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated R for drug content, language and some nudity