Alex Gibney is in my opinion one of the greatest American documentary filmmakers working today and I’m not alone. In 2010 Esquire magazine said that Gibney “is becoming the most important documentarian of our time.” His recent filmography includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliott Spitzer and Gonzo, a wonderful film about Hunter S. Thompson that I’ve seen about ten times. When I saw that Gibney, along with Allison Ellwood, directed a film about writer Ken Kesey and his legendary bus trip across America with the Merry Pranksters I knew it was going to be good.
Magic Trip documents Kesey’s bus trip to New York for the World’s Fair in 1964. This film is the first time that the original footage shot by Kesey and his cohorts during the trip has ever been seen. Kesey had at this point published two novels to critical acclaim, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, and he was firmly established as a counter culture hero. Wanting to take a break from writing, Kesey bought an old school bus, decorated it with psychedelic art and crammed it full of his friends, with road trip veteran Neal Cassady (who was the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On The Road) at the wheel. They bought cameras and sound equipment that none of them knew how to use and started travelling from West to East. The idea was to make art out of everyday life, to bring happiness and joy to other people, and to explore America by road.
They ended up with over forty hours of footage accompanied by an audio track that wasn’t synched. As a result the footage never saw the light of day bar a couple of screenings Kesey held for his friends. It took Gibney and Ellwood over a year to restore the film and then many frustrating hours trying to match the audio to the visuals. Their efforts were certainly worth the time. The footage, shot on 16mm film, is beautifully vivid, and the summer scenes fairly leap off the screen. Gibney and Ellwood have constructed the film around interviews with the participants which took place ten years after the trip and these are provided in voice-over, a welcome change from the usual “talking head” documentary format.
Kesey had volunteered for Project MKUltra in the 1950s, a CIA run experiment to test the effects of mind altering drugs including LSD, psilocybin and mescaline. As a result of his experiences Kesey was a proponent of the mind expanding and conciousness raising aspects of psychedelic drugs. He and the Pranksters regularly dropped acid on the road trip, danced around fires, tried to play instruments (with varying degrees of success) and communed with nature.
As Robin Williams famously said, “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” and this film shows exactly why. For the rest of us Magic Trip provides an insight into a legendary artistic journey that seems not so much subversive but in fact innocent, playful and idealistic.