The Grateful Dead when they started playing as the Warlocks, from "Magic Trip"
Paul Ryan, Magnolia Pictures
Ken Kesey & Co. take a 'Magic Trip'
- Article by: COLIN COVERT
- Star Tribune
- September 2, 2011 - 10:06 AM
In 1964, Ken Kesey, the novelist and aficionado of psychedelic visions, pulled together a crew of freewheeling young adventurers for a road trip from California to the New York World's Fair. They dubbed their wildly painted 1939 International Harvester school bus "Further." The name connoted a metaphorical, figurative distance. It riled Kesey when people carelessly called it "Farther," which concerns mere physical space. Since the group's most important tripping was on hallucinogens, the distinction mattered.
"Magic Trip" is a documentary travelogue back to an era when LSD promised to throw open the portals of perception and grant users a consciousness verging on cosmic. The enlightenment never quite arrived, but the drug's potential made early users giddy with expectation. Kesey, a pioneer of psychoactive self-medication, called his traveling companions the Merry Pranksters. Alex Gibney's film, culled from the mess of color film the group shot en route, records a lot of silly misbehavior but only minor merriment.
The film vividly captures a time when the Beat Generation of artists and writers was about to be overtaken by a youthquake. Further's driver was Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac's muse and Allen Ginsberg's lover, a speed freak of leprechaun wit, ever ready to jump aboard the next new thing. The passengers were a gaggle of guys eager for a drug-fueled jaunt and proto- hippie beauties up for adventure.
In 1964, the next wave hadn't discovered its distinctive psychedelic aesthetic. Kesey and company look like they could have handed out flyers at a Barry Goldwater rally without raising an eyebrow. Their clean-cut appearance concealed a chaotic, subversive mindset. When the mood struck, they would haul out marching band instruments and make a horrendous racket, convinced that they could noodle up free-form music without bothering to practice. They drove the bus backward through downtown Phoenix just for the reactions it would get. In Louisiana they accidentally integrated a blacks-only swimming beach.
Kesey, who discovered LSD as a volunteer in a government drug-research program at California's Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, believed that users could exorcise their private demons under the influence of hallucinogens. In practice, it didn't work as expected. The film notes that one of the women on the bus, a stunning free spirit nicknamed Stark Naked, downed a massive dose of acid and never quite returned to Earth.
The Pranksters proved too outlandish for Kerouac when they visited him in New York. When they arrived at the New York mansion where Timothy Leary spun theories about the spiritual and psychological complexities of LSD use, they got an equally chilly reception. Kesey fared better back on the West Coast when he hooked up with a new group called the Grateful Dead. The footage of an unrecognizably youthful Jerry Garcia is worth the price of admission.
Gibney's film, ably narrated by Stanley Tucci, is a buoyant journal of an experiment that fizzled. It may be most important as a counterweight to Tom Wolfe's condescending account of the affair, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Like the Pranksters honking out random notes on their band instruments, "Magic Trip" looks like it was a lot more fun to make than to observe.
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