Directed by Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney
Sundry events are said to have culturally initiated the 1960s; Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood's documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place gives the honor to One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest writer Kesey's legendary 1964 cross-country journey with navigator Neal Cassady and a puckish group of friends calling themselves The Merry Pranksters. Rolling in a tricked-out, day-glo school bus (christened "Furthur") from La Honda, California to the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, the Pranksters dropped acid, desegregated Southern swimming spots, razzed Barry Goldwater in the presidential hopeful's hometown, and generally freaked out locals and themselves on the way to some sort of proto-hippie satori.
This fantastic voyage and the ensuing LSD-infused happenings orchestrated by Kesey back in No-Cal are all documented in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Left largely unseen—unless you were there, man—was the footage the pranksters shot of their pilgrimage. Gibney and Ellwood have now organized and distilled the notorious 40-plus hours of chaos into an accessible 107-minute summary, with recorded narration by Kesey (who died in 2001) and other Pranksters looking back on their adventures. Such an approach forsakes immediacy. "The Movie" was originally supposed to be viewed in an extended, multimedia format, usually under shambolic and inebriated conditions; watching the past-tense Magic Trip is like watching a baseball game with play-by-play announced forty years after the fact.
On the other hand, disparities between the visual hi-jinks and aural reminiscences create revealing fractures. The wonderfully raspy Jane Burton frequently admits how forced the fun could be, and how the nonstop drugs and scene-making took its toll on fragile personalities. Though consistent hallucinatory ornamentation—including a surprisingly evocative illustration of Kesey's first tape-recorded, MKULTRA-instigated LSD experience—allows Magic Trip to make good on its title, the film's first-person commentaries provide the necessary shading to account for the inevitable bummers encountered by its free spirits.
Opens August 5