Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place

I’ll have to begin with a disclaimer. If you’re looking for an objective, unbiased review of Magic Trip, you should stop reading now.

This footage of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters’ cross country jaunts aboard ‘Furthur’ (the magic bus) has been lying dormant – ready to explode on screens – for almost fifty years. Quite simply put, it’s impossible to estimate the effect that the maiden psychedelic voyages depicted in the film have had on the development of the western counterculture, but what is perhaps surprising is how coherent, accessible and informative filmmakers Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney make the journey for the as yet uninitiated. What could easily have been a rambling, incoherent hieroglyphic journey for those not versed in sixties lore instead comes off as a joyous, nostalgic ode to a simpler time when North America was poised at the cusp of great cultural change.

At the centre of the action in Magic Trip is Ken Kesey, an award-winning athlete and promising scholar whose first novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a surprise hit when it was published in 1962. Bolstered by funds from the success of this novel and the hit play starring Kirk Douglas that grew out of it, Kesey and a group of friends decided to equip a bus and drive from the west coast to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. This would be an exciting trip in itself, but Kesey – who had been a willing participant in early LSD experiments conducted by the CIA at Stanford University in 1959 – decided to up the ante by bringing along a generous amount of LSD – a substance that was still legal at the time.

Thankfully, Kesey had the foresight to bring along a 16 mm movie camera and film equipment to document the journey, and the over 100 hours of footage various members of his ensemble captured on film form the bulk of Magic Trip’s visuals.

Understandably, the cinematography is not world class. None of the people behind the lens were professionals and they were – more than likely – chemically enhanced while the film was rolling. Still, this is part of Magic Trip’s charm. The offhand images bursting with rich colour tell a story that could not be told if there was more forethought. Styles of clothes, automobiles and architecture whirl past the viewer’s eyes like a lysergic episode of Mad Men as Kesey and his crew get ever closer to the World’s Fair while the reasons for going fade farther and farther away.

The main action of the film culminates when Kesey and the Pranksters drive to Millbrook – a sprawling old family estate and property near Poughkeepsie, New York – to visit the intellectual faction of the psychedelic movement as represented by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and his gang of east coast academics. The tension is palpable as Leary refuses to come out and say ‘hello’ with Alpert drawing the short straw and getting charged with keeping the Prankster’s brand of wild anarchic fun in check. For Leary and company, psychedelics were serious business and Kesey and his unwelcome friends quickly hit the road and moved on.

Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady on the bus.Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady on the bus.The only thing lacking in Elwood and Gibney’s otherwise excellent film is meaningful follow-up on how the trip affected those involved and the culture at large. There is a somewhat rushed sequence at the end of the film that attempts to answer ‘what happened’ and ‘where are they now?’ but it would have been nice to have included some contemporary interviews with Ken Babbs, Stark Naked and Gretchen Fetchin to find out what happened to them and how they looked back at their cross country trips aboard Further. Apparently Kesey worked with the footage and created hand made films of the Further adventure for anyone who wanted them. It would have been interesting to hear more about that, too and included a few interviews with Kesey from over the years.

Still, these are relatively small quibbles that shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place. It is an important historical document and Ellwood and Gibney deserve a lot of credit and respect for going through the mountains of film stock to make such an engaging, riveting movie.

Magic Trip is currently showing at films across USA. No Canadian release has been scheduled at this time. Watch for it soon on DVD.