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.