It’s not every 29-year-old married dad who embarks on a cross-country road trip filled with partying, sex and loads of hallucinogens. But Ken Kesey wasn’t your average 29-year-old when he masterminded this epic journey in 1964, having already authored the acclaimed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His memorable counterculture excursion is the subject of Magic Trip, a mind-bending documentary opening in Atlanta on Sept. 2.
Kesey may have been a renowned author by the time his 30th birthday approached, but his creative spirit had grown restless as he sensed a nation on the edge of cultural transition. The idyllic, homogenized ‘50s of hula hoops and picket fences still lingered, but it was mixing with more turbulent events such as the assassination of JFK, the Civil Rights movement and the threat of the Cold War. It was against this backdrop that Kesey, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, set out from California to attend the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
This was no peaceful road trip in the family station wagon, though. For starters, Kesey recruited On the Road icon and nonstop chatterbox Neal Cassady. They were joined by a colorful cast of characters who became known as “The Merry Band of Pranksters,” a co-ed crew whose members were to varying degrees interested in philosophizing, playing music, experimenting with drugs and getting naked. Their vehicle of choice? A 1930s school bus pimped out in an assortment of psychedelic colors.
While the trip may have been dripping in excess, Kesey was after more than mere hedonism. He wanted to capture the changing sprit of America, push the boundaries of the mind and spread goodwill to all—and he wanted to share these experience with others. So, he brought along movie cameras and sound gear to capture the trek, but the footage was so rough, so unwieldy, that it was never assembled into a feature-length film. Until now.
In Magic Trip, co-directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) have painstakingly overseen the restoration of Kesey’s footage; pored through interviews, transcripts and notes from the participants; and assembled a 100-minute retelling of the journey.
Given the fragmented, unruly nature of the footage, Gibney and Ellwood employ many non-traditional documentary techniques in Magic Trip, blurring the line between fiction and reality in a way that Kesey likely would have approved. The move is framed by a fictional interviewer, voiced by Stanley Tucci, who asks “questions” of the participants, and the answers are often pieced together from third-party archival interviews or voiced by actors reading past transcripts of participants describing the trip.
Magic Trip’s visual stylings ratchet up the surrealistic vibe. A segment re-enacting Kesey’s first LSD experience while a research subject at UCLA is creatively illustrated, edited and scored to deliver a trippy viewing experience. Elsewhere, the raw footage itself is sufficiently bizarre, such as a clip from a Dupont World Fair song-and-dance number promising, “Better things / for better living / through chemistry.”
Gibney and Ellwood provide just enough archival news footage to provide the necessary context, but Magic Trip’s focus is on the bus trek itself, which serves as a fascinating slice of history.
But while the directors make a compelling case for Kesey’s trip marking the true birth of the ‘60s, Magic Trip doesn’t pass judgment on the counterculture movement itself, leaving the viewer to decide, for example, whether Kesey’s declaration that the bus trip was his greatest legacy is a legitimate claim, sheer lunacy or both. Either way, this is one road trip you won’t forget.
“Magic Trip” opens in Atlanta on Sept. 2 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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