Time rarely does history any favors, and pop culture doesn’t fare better than any other form of human endeavor along these lines. Just as many folks will tell you that Elvis Presley invented rock & roll and Meredith Hunter was stabbed at Altamont while the Stones were playing "Sympathy for the Devil," there are plenty of students of the lore of the 1960s who speak of how Ken Kesey and a bunch of his friends once painted a bus, hopped on board, spent the summer Freaking Out the Man, and invented the counterculture just in time for the rise of the hippies. Of course, while there’s a kernel of truth in that statement, it’s also oversimplified and only partially accurate. Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was an excellent account of Ken Kesey’s fabled road trip of 1964 and its aftermath, but it was also the product of second-hand reporting, and the more the tale has been told over the years, the more flawed the chronicles have become. Kesey and his partners actually documented their adventures on 16 mm film and audiotape, but for a variety of reasons the movie they intended to make about their quest was never completed. More than 45 years after the fact, filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood were granted access to Kesey’s archival materials, and their documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place is a fascinating and often surprising examination of a geographic and psychological journey in a nation in the midst of massive change.
In 1964, Ken Kesey was a successful author who had published two novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, and seemed poised to enjoy a long and rewarding career. However, Kesey had other ideas. While in college, Kesey had been part of an experiment in which the United States military was testing a newly discovered drug, LSD, for its possibilities in gathering intelligence. Kesey, a teetotaler at the time, was powerfully moved by the psychedelic experience, and began using LSD and peyote on a regular basis after he finished school. As the drugs encouraged Kesey’s thoughts about the very American notions of exploration and freedom, he and some like-minded friends decided to put their ideas into action. Buying an old bus they named Further and fitting it with bunks while painting the outside with colorful, abstract designs no one yet knew to call psychedelic, Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters set out from California to New York, where they planned to visit the World’s Fair (whose theme was "Man in a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe"). Kesey brought along movie cameras and sound equipment, telling the curious that the intent of their trip was to make a film, and they slowly made their way from one coast to another, playfully confronting the populace with their outre clothing (often red, white, and blue), improvised music, and over-the-top behavior as they embraced such identities as Hardly Visible, Generally Famished, Gretchen Fetchin, and Stark Naked.
While a playful air surrounded the Pranksters and their trip, it occurred at a time when America was beginning to deeply question itself. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year before, Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights was in full swing, and a new generation growing up under the shadow of the Cold War had come to doubt the values of their parents. As Magic Trip makes clear, the Pranksters were neither beatniks nor hippies, though they had a bit in common with both; they were enamored with the notion of the open road as Jack Kerouac had described it, and they enjoyed visual outrage and chemical recreation (the latter at a time when LSD was still legal in much of the United States). But they weren’t dropping out of the culture so much as they were inviting others to look into their way of life and see that it wasn’t a threat -- in fact, it was an embrace of the independence that was at the heart of the American experience.
Or at least that’s what the Pranksters had in mind. While Magic Trip is an affectionate celebration of Kesey and his traveling companions, it doesn’t take long to realize there was a significant distance between theory and practice once one sees the evidence at hand. For every moment here where the Pranksters are mingling with a puzzled but fascinated public (the most common reaction seems to be that they were harmless weirdoes, which was essentially the truth), there are at least two where they’re wandering in the wilderness, playing with paint, taking a swim, or literally stuck in the mud and waiting for someone to pull them out. While history remembers the Pranksters as joyously confrontational, that’s not the picture that comes across in the archival films; it’s clear their journey was as much internal as physical, and not everyone agreed on how it was working out. There’s footage of Kerouac drinking beer at a Pranksters party in New York City, and he hardly looks like he’s enjoying himself, while those interviewed recall him not having much use for their new lifestyle. Among themselves, some Pranksters clearly reveled in the voyage, while others were eager to see it end and had come to believe that the trip (both of the mind and on the bus) was an experiment they didn’t need to repeat. The character of Neal Cassady is a subtly polarizing element; Cassady was a close friend of Kerouac who helped inspire the book On the Road, and he throws himself into his task of driving the bus with vigor, but he’s also a speed freak with little control over himself by the end of the film, turning his life into a frenetic abstract work of art since he lacks the gift to create words or images. And while the film explores how the travels of Further led to Kesey’s pioneering "Acid Test" multimedia events, it also confirms how wary he became of the rise of the hippie movement and why he chose to disassociate himself from it.
Directors Gibney and Ellwood were part of an effort to restore and preserve Kesey’s rare footage, and for anyone with any familiarity with the legend of the Merry Pranksters, watching Magic Trip is both fascinating and surprising. While it’s clear no one on the bus was a professional cinematographer, the images are remarkably crisp and colorful, and seeing the faces that go with the names -- sometimes looking older and more somber than expected -- is a pleasant shock. No one knew how to synch camera and sound equipment, either, so the soundtrack is a melange of location audio and interviews (sometimes re-created by actors) with former passengers of Further sharing their memories and music -- most of it rock, R&B, and jazz of the day rather than the psychedelic rock that would arrive later on -- and the effect is lively and pleasing. While not every Prankster is on hand to share their stories, enough are present here to make it obvious that there was no one clear message to this madness -- they all seem to have experienced this journey in different ways, and their conclusions were just as individual. As a consequence, Magic Trip is a film that tells many small stories within the framework of one larger tale, and not all of them turn out as expected, which is ultimately one of the important messages of Kesey’s voyage and half the fun of this film that rewrites a chapter in our cultural history while bringing it to vivid life.