Magic Trip (2011)

by | Nov 21, 2011 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Magic Trip (2011)
Documentary on Ken Kesey’s cross-country psychedelic bus trip
Directors: Alex Gibney & Alison Ellwood
With: Ken Kesey, Allan Ginsberg, Ram Dass, The Grateful Dead, Stanley Tucci
Studio: Magnolia  10423  [11/1/11]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color
Audio: English DD 5.1
Subtitles: Spanish
Extras: Deleted scenes, Audio of Kesey’s first “trip,” HDNet: A Look at Magic Trip, Commentary track by the directors
Length: 107 minutes
Rating: ****
In 1964 author Ken Kesey set off on his legendary road trip from California to New York for the World’s Fair with his busload of fellow Merry Pranksters, including Neal Cassady (really Dean Moriarty) of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.  They also had a couple new 16mm Arriflexes, some fancy tripods and other cameras and eventually edited together over thirty hours of silent footage (they didn’t have any sound). Gibney and Ellwood must have had quite a challenge getting all that into this interesting documentary.  Everyone creating the original footage was probably zonked out of their mind while shooting it and it looks like it. Some actors were brought in for the documentary to do shots of some of the Pranksters who were on “Further” (the old bus). And creative new dialog was recorded for some of the footage that seems to fit, sort of.
One learns that Kesey’s mind-expanding experiments with LSD all began because while studying at Stanford he took the opportunity to be a test subject for some CIA-originated tests to see if they could use LSD to mess up the minds of enemy soldiers. He was in a room with a Wollansak tape recorder for eight hours and taping his thoughts and hallucinations.  One was that he kept seeing the Wollansak mike as a shaver, with hairs sprouting out of it. In the medical facility where he did the $25 a night tests, he also got ideas that eventually blossomed into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  
There was evidently another similar documentary called Electric Koolaid Acid Test (based on Kesey’s book), which I haven’t seen. Though the bus trip is the main focus, there are details of the backgrounds, and events before and after. This was all before hippies and concerns about the dangers of LSD. One interesting bit was the problematic meeting of these West Coast stoned proto-hippies with the professorial, New England scientists of Dr. Timothy Leary’s compound. Leary didn’t want to have much to do with them, but Ram Dass spoke to them. It’s interesting to see a face put on some of these characters and events. There is footage of the creation of the first tie-dyed shirt, of the Pranksters mistakenly jumping into a lake in New Orleans—not realizing they were in a segregated black-only beach, and of one of the Pranksters they called Stark Naked. Moriarty wondered why all the trucks in Texas were behind them and not passing them, and found it was because Stark had wigged out on LSD-laced orange juice, snuck up thru the turret they had installed on the roof of the bus, and was standing on the roof facing the truck drivers, in a condition befitting her nickname. I didn’t know that Kesey’s band had started the Grateful Dead on their career. After the bus trip they played for many of the Acid Test parties and became popular. The dangers of LSD for some are not glossed over in the film.
Kesey’s own comments and the reports of some of the Pranksters are what binds the film together and leaves us with something to think about. It’s quite a piece of fascinating history and characters, and a fine homage to the psychedelic pioneer. He summed up himself in his quote: “I’ve always been a fairly reliable straight-up the middle road citizen who just happens to be an acid head.”
—John Sunier

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