The subject of Magic Trip is the LSD-powered, cross-country road movie orchestrated by novelist Ken Kesey in the summer of '64. More than a footnote but less than a chapter in American cultural history, the voyage taken by a psychedelic Day-Glo painted school bus filled with Kesey's Merry Prankster pals and driven by Beat Generation ego-ideal Neal Cassady was part madcap social experiment and part improvised reality show — a template for the antic hippie-ism that would enliven the remainder of the decade.
Kesey's trip provided the basis for Tom Wolfe's nonfiction novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and was also documented, after a fashion, by the participants, proponents of the notion that life was a movie in which everyone (or at least each of them) was a star. Kesey (a frustrated Hollywood actor according to his friend, fellow novelist Robert Stone) had great hopes for the movie created, per Wolfe, "under conditions of total spontaneity barreling through the heartlands of America, recording all now, in the moment." Defying intelligible montage, excerpts from this footage have surfaced several times over the decades; now the prolific Alex Gibney (Enron, Client 9), working with editor Alison Ellwood, has taken the material — digitally improved and at times painstakingly near-synchronized to the original sound — as the basis for an oral history. Surviving Pranksters are interviewed; Kesey is heard reminiscing with Terry Gross.
Magic Trip is somewhat smugly overpackaged in its assumption that Kesey invented the '60s although, as presaged by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the writer mightily contributed to the counterculture's libertarian ideology ("doing your own thing" seems to be his coinage). Wearing red, white, and blue bunting (several years in advance of Abbie Hoffman), the Pranksters confounded local mores and baffled cops from Arizona to New Jersey; roughly coinciding with the 1964 presidential campaign, their antics illustrated Barry Goldwater's assertion that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."
As filmed, the regressive acting out suggests an artless version of Jack Smith's slightly earlier Normal Love, which features extravagantly costumed and casually naked behavior en plein air. Here we see the Pranksters off the road and ripped on acid, skinny-dipping in the muck, inventing tie-dye (you are there!), and tootling their instruments, kindergarten-style. It's one thing to read about a driver who, according to Stone, "could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon," it's another to watch motor-mouthed Cassady in action, spinning the wheel while ignoring the road. As vivid as Wolfe's descriptions are, it's astonishing to see the Prankster bus, festooned with American flags and a banner reading, "A Vote for Barry is a Vote for Fun," drive backward through Phoenix.
Gibney and Ellwood do have a sense of historical evanescence and inevitability. Kesey's eccentric odyssey was almost instantly recuperated on a mass scale. Thus, Magic Trip provides a mental match cut from the Prankster-mobile to a commercial tour bus exploring the Haight three years later and concludes on a nostalgic note with the inevitable Grateful Dead anthem "Truckin'." What it lacks, perhaps unavoidably, is a sense of the cosmic Now; the movie recovers, without exactly illuminating, a "long, strange trip" that seems all the stranger as it recedes into the past.