Magic Trip Review
Ken Kesey, the principal subject of Magic Trip, is undoubtedly a fascinating man. This new documentary focuses on his experiences primarily during 1964, by which point he was already the best-selling author of two major novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, which had been published that year. Both would later become movies, whilst Cuckoo’s Nest was at that time a hit on Broadway with Kirk Douglas occupying the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy, later made famous by Jack Nicholson. As well as being an author Kesey was also a family man having married his childhood sweetheart whilst still at college in 1956. They had three children. He was also something of the athlete, participating in college footage and wrestling. With regards to the latter he even trained to become part of the United States’ 1960 Olympic Team. Except in 1959 Kesey volunteered for an experiment that would change his life. The CIA were embarking on Project MK-ULTRA, essentially a look into the effects of various psychoactive drugs including LSD. Almost a decade later, whilst LSD was still legal in the States, Kesey would instigate the Acid Tests in which people were free to sample the drug whilst the Grateful Dead provided fitting musical accompaniment. Tom Wolfe captured the events in his 1968 non-fiction ‘novel’ The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
The Acid Tests and the Grateful Dead receive only a cursory mention in Magic Trip, their first acknowledgement coming around the 90-minute mark. Rather this documentary is concerned with the events - or rather event - that would lead up them, namely a cross-country trip Kesey and pals embarked from the East Coast to the West Coast, or from California to New York City. The principal aim was to attend the 1964 World’s Fair, though of course the trip itself would prove more important. The various friends - a mixed gender bunch of prototypical drop-outs - included Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in On the Road. He was the designated driver of their specially-purchased vehicle for the trip: a bus dubbed ‘Further’ and daubed in psychedelic paint designs. The name, intended to denote a philosophical concept rather than a measurement of time or space, highlights a certain pretension to this road trip. Indeed, Kesey - the owner of two professional 16mm colour cameras - also wanted to capture his band of self-titled Merry Pranksters on celluloid as the basis for a feature film.
That movie never surfaced, though occasional snippets of footage have found themselves in documentaries chronicling the sixties. As such Magic Trip represents a first proper airing of the many reels of developed film Kesey ended up with, and the first to take proper advantage of the scenes and observations they contain. Directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood opt for a cut-and-paste approach which combines stock footage and famous images from the sixties (JFK’s assassination, MLK marching for civil rights, etc.) alongside Kesey’s material, though understandably it is the author’s 16mm documents which eat up the screentime. Understandably not only for their rarity and inherent fascination as, effectively, counter-culture home movies, but also because these colour images look absolutely wonderful. Anybody questioning why a film such as Magic Trip is receiving the Blu-ray treatment need only sample a minute or so of this bright, dazzling 1964 to get their answer.
Gibney and Ellwood back up the footage with new and old audio input from Kesey (who died in 2001) and his fellow Pranksters. Structurally Magic Trip is very straightforward: a linear narrative that follows the journey from West to East capturing and focussing on the main events as and when the journey reaches them. The road trippers drop in on Larry McMurtry, the author of The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove, for example, and do likewise to Allen Ginsberg once they reach their destination. Sexual encounters and consequent jealousies are also detailed, as are major drug experiences and potential run-ins with the police. (The latter, incidentally, were often satisfied once the cameras came out - the Pranksters were just making a movie they were told - plus, this being before the counter-culture became more widespread, the bus was seen as novel rather than an indicator of drug use. As Kesey points out, the Pranksters fell between the Beatnik and the Hippy movements, affiliated with neither.)
Noting the various relationships that blossomed and/or ended on the bus, one of the interviewees declares such goings-on as “soap opera 101”. It’s an important remark as it reminds the viewer that the Pranksters, despite their later significance via the Acid Tests or their celebrity via Kesey or even infamy via Cassady, were just a group of friends-slash-misfits. Furthermore, their activities during the 1964 road trip were pretty much self-contained. Certainly, Kesey’s fame meant that interviews were conducted during the journey and, as such, some media coverage resulted. But essentially this is simply a film about a bunch of pals doing a lot of drugs whilst travelling from one side of America to the other. As such it doesn’t have the same significance as the subsequent Acid Tests simply because it didn’t impact on the wider culture in the same (or perhaps even any kind of) fashion.
Not that Gibney and Ellwood would probably agree with me. Their joint career (Ellwood having previous produced and edited rather than co-directed their other documentaries together) has encompassed a number of non-fiction works that have taken on big themes and significant issues or events. The Enron scandal, the war in Afghanistan and the life of Hunter S. Thompson have all come under the microscope. (Next up, reportedly, is Julian Assange and Wikileaks.) They’ve been popular too, with Taxi to the Dark Side winning an Oscar for Best Documentary and plenty of other awards and nominations coming Gibney and Ellwood’s way. Yet Magic Trip doesn’t feel quite so important alongside these films, and this is despite its directors’ best efforts. The opening has narrator Stanley Tucci pondering “When did the sixties begin?” as though Magic Trip provides the very answer, but it’s an unconvincing one at best. It’s hard not to escape the feeling that had it not been Kesey in that bus, and had those various reels of 16mm colour film not existed, that this documentary wouldn’t have been made.
With that said, there is still plenty contained within that footage to prompt an interest. We get to see, at first hand, Neal Cassady in full motor-mouthed action behind the wheel of ‘Further’. We get to see Allen Ginsberg sat slightly bored on a bench at the World’s Fair, wearing a wonderful red- and white-striped T-shirt whilst the massive stainless-steel ‘Unisphere’ looms behind him. Such images retain a strong element of the home movie to them, which does make you wonder how Kesey et al planned to make a proper motion picture out of it all. And it was a professional feature that they intended to make, not some experimental pseudo-documentary. As it stands today, the end result now has time capsule appeal more than anything else. The manner in which it captures the sixties prior to ‘the sixties’ happening or for those glimpses into a prototypical counter-cultural existence. Such aspects will no doubt find their audience but it’s unlikely to be a wide one. Ultimately Magic Trip is just one of a number of potential opening chapters to a much bigger story. And, with that, it cannot help but feel a little anti-climactic.
Studiocanal released Magic Trip this week onto individual DVD and Blu-ray releases. Encoded for Region 2/Region B, both contain the same extras and differ only in presentation quality. The latter has been provided for review purposes and is considered below.
Being a mix of almost entirely old footage, both in terms of the images and the soundtrack, it is entirely fair to say that Magic Bus’ presentation quality wavers somewhat. We get scratchy footage and muddy audio, but then we also get wonderfully pristine colour images and interviews as crisp as one could hope for. Picture-wise the vast majority of the footage comes from Kesey’s own cameras that was donated to UCLA after his death. Some of this material, as we learn in the documentary, was edited over time in the hope that a standalone feature could be made out of it, though nothing ever materialised. As a result of this there is also some wavering quality within this footage alone, but when it’s good (which is really quite often), it’s very good - and that alone justifies the Blu-ray’s existence. Indeed, the fact that such material does look as wonderful as it does also suggests that any flaws we see elsewhere are wholly the result of the materials to hand as opposed to this disc’s transfer and encode. Much the same is also true of the soundtrack, though the filmmakers have supplied subtitles for those passages where the quality is particularly poor. (Optional English HOH subs are also available throughout.)
The extras are particularly interesting and split themselves between those devoted to the film at hand and those which focus on its subject and/or subject matter. Of the former we find a director’s commentary by Gibney and Ellwood, whilst Gibney crops up again for a lengthy interview. The expected collection of trailers are also present, as are a choice of eleven deleted/extended scenes, all of which were cut/trimmed for pacing reasons. The commentary concentrates primarily upon the process of piecing Magic Trip together: how to deal with the Kesey footage and, more importantly, how to structure it into a feature. On top of this we also get some appreciation/criticism of Kesey’s material (impressed by the exposure levels; less impressed by the lack of a tripod), some additional background into the key players and a nod to Wolfe’s 1968 book (which Gibney was keen to avoid as an influence in terms of style and substance, though of course there’s some crossover). Gibney’s interview - taken from the programme The High Bar with Warren Etheredge - is a more general affair; the first question, for example, is “Are hallucinogenic drugs patriotic?” Note, however, that this is aimed at an audience who have yet to see the film and so much of the discussion centres on areas we’ve already witnessed: the general background into Kesey, and so on. Nonetheless an interesting watch.
Backing up these film-related additions we also find two welcome dips into the archive in the form of a full 51-minute recording of Kesey undergoing LSD administration in 1960 as part of the voluntary CIA experiments, and a bit of classic British television courtesy of an episode of the 1967 arts series New Tempo (formerly known simply as Tempo). The former is fairly self-explanatory. During the film’s commentary Gibney states that he found the tape in the Kesey barn. Snippets find their way into Magic Trip, though understandably the fuller version, especially at almost an hour in length, has the greater impact. Given that this is audio only the images accompanying it are an animated loop of photos of Kesey with some psychedelic touches applied. The New Tempo episode, entitled Stimulants, was produced by Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Flash Gordon) and directed by Jim Goddard (later hugely prolific in episodic television). First screened in early 1967, this is an artfully-illustrated piece in which R.D. Laing discusses the properties and effects of LSD - in terms of sensory perceptions and concepts of time, space and reality - whilst the actions of a man sitting down in a chair and lighting a cigarette are repeated over and over with slight visual variations as means of representing some of Laing’s ideas. They don’t entirely succeed, but it’s a fascinating document and (much like Kesey’s 16mm footage) an intriguing time capsule. Note, however, that it is presented in standard definition.