Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood carry out an assured assembly job with Magic Trip, a reconstituted version of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author’s unfinished film about his legendary 1964 road trip from the West to East Coast in a painted yellow school bus. Culled from over 100 hours of video and audio recordings, which Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters were never able to properly edit or sync into a cohesive whole, Gibney and Ellwood’s archival-footage documentary charts Kesey and company as they journey from California to New York for the World’s Fair, a trip that ever-questioning narrator Stanley Tucci states “lit the fuse for the explosion of the ‘60s.” That point is hard to argue, as Kesey, following Jack Kerouac’s influential On the Road and presaging the forthcoming hippie movement, was a trailblazer of social tolerance, free love, and mind-expanding drugs, with LSD fueling his crew’s wayward cross-country odyssey. Yet while this expedition is concisely contextualized as a reaction to the ‘50s and a harbinger of the progressive years to come, it’s never more than an occasionally interesting and enlightening triviality, one defined primarily by its fascination with an event that often failed to transcend its fundamental people-tripping-on-a-bus nature.
The messiness of Kesey’s trip is reflected, for worse more than for better, by Magic Trip, which despite patching together its elements in a confident and compelling manner, generally by layering interviews from the prime players over relevant film snippets, fails to provide much insight into any of its subjects, who, with the sporadic exception of motor-mouth driver and On the Road inspiration Neal Cassady, remain interchangeable goofballs driven by narcotics and sex. Kesey expounds on the cinematic Cuckoo’s Nest adaptation, which he claims turned the symbolic story too literal and melodramatic, and—after charting encounters with Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and the Grateful Dead—the film eventually comes around to showing the darker side to the LSD boom.
Yet whereas a trippy animated sequence that visualizes Kesey’s first LSD experience via a government-sponsored Stanford college experiment exhibits enveloping headiness, much of the material proves ramshackle and redundant, detailing the very many ways that sobriety-challenged young people can putz around on American highways. While random moments stick (such as the group inventing the process of tie-dying), countless others are just lazy, cruddy looking travelogue snapshots of nudity, getting high, and stumbling and bumbling about. At its best, Magic Trip evokes the freewheeling, idealistic, psychedelic vibe of an era’s origins; at worst, it’s a film in which people narrate their own druggie home movies.