You May Observe the Ride, but You May Not Come Aboard the Bus: 'Magic Trip'

On listening to people read from a script while we watch silent home movie footage of people on heroic doses of psychedelics.

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place

Director: Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney
Cast: Stanley Tucci, Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia, Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac
Distributor: Magnolia
Release date: 2011-11-01

In the mid-'60s, in what has come to be read as one of the first signposts along the road to the fomenting of a widespread “counterculture” in the United States and beyond, celebrated novelist Ken Kesey and a group of acquaintances decided to paint an old school bus and travel back and forth across America. This band of intellectuals, drifters, artists, actors, musicians and fools gave each other weird nicknames, dubbed their ride Further, and decided that they should henceforth be known to all as the Merry Pranksters. It was tough not to notice.

This moment in 1964, we are instructed, was the real beginning of “the Sixties”. Leaping off from this tiresome cliché – why does every discussion of the period have to try to put some fine point on the moment of its inception? – Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood’s documentary embraces the unhinged zaniness of its subject matter, but never seems to find a workable tone. In the opening few frames we are greeted by a voice over (from Stanley Tucci) that borders on aggressive, even arch. He explains that the film will be comprised of rarely seen footage that was shot by the principals themselves some 50 years ago (exciting!) but which never made much sense to begin with due to the fact that the filmmakers tended to be on LSD and unfamiliar with any filmmaking techniques at all (less exciting!).

What is worse is that the footage is rendered even less comprehensible, since due to a technical snafu there is no way to sync it to the soundtrack. When Kesey and his pals discovered this fatal error back in the late '60s, they eventually gave up on their project and the film was left sitting for decades. For this new documentary, this problem is meant to have been solved by the inclusion of actors performing voice overs for each of the main characters, however this tends to feel rather uncomfortably like exactly what it is: listening to people read from a script while we watch silent home movie footage of people on heroic doses of psychedelics.

Don’t get me wrong. I'm deeply drawn to this material, and I found many of the scenes in this documentary compelling. But as the minutes drip by and we come to realise that there is no analysis here, little interpretation, scant attempt to come to any deeper meanings about the great road trip, and no even perfunctory engagement with the motivation of anyone other than Kesey (and, to a much lesser extent, the manic beat hero Neal Cassidy), it becomes clear that we are being invited to observe, but not really to get on board, this bus.

This is a huge missed opportunity, given the obvious and worthy questions brought up at almost every turn here. From the blatant sexism of the group – the two principle women are named for their bodies [Gretchen Fetchin and Stark Naked, (dis)respectively] – to the terrible moment when Ms. Naked is arrested and admitted to a mental institution hundreds of miles into the journey and they just leave her there, much is witnessed about the ways these ur-hippies understood people and community, but little is really examined. Shoulders are shrugged.

In the end, although the narrative line appears to offer up a welcome refusal of the glib celebrations of hip baby boomer adventurism we have become accustomed to (since their journey winds up with them being completely disappointed by the World’s Fair they had planned to “experience” before getting utterly snubbed first by a bemused Jack Kerouac and then by Timothy Leary), the filmmakers then feel compelled to provide a final act tonal shift to celebrate the life and legend of Kesey which, though not exactly out of left field, feels like a cop-out.

Though there is a bravura sequence which, using powerful imagery and nifty animation, which illustrates Ken Kesey’s first trip through the LSD funhouse (while a subject of CIA-funded psychiatric investigations into the then-legal substance’s possible market and/or military value), and though some of the footage is indeed a treat for people interested in the era and its mythology, the overall result is a forgettable film about an unforgettable subject. Bummer, man.

DVD extras include the complete tapes of Kesey’s first acid trip and some deleted scenes of no great shakes.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.