Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place (2011)


(director/writer: Alex Gibney/Alison Ellwood; screenwriter: based on the words and recordings of Ken Kesey; editor: Alison Ellwood; music: David Kahne; cast: Stanley Tucci (voice of the interviewer); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producer:Alex Gibney/Will Clarke/Alexandra Johnes;Magnolia Pictures; 2011)

All the film can do is suggest to us what a “long, strange trip”it has been, thereby echoing the lyrics in the Grateful Dead song.”

Reviewed by Dennis SchwartzWritten and directed byAlex Gibney (“Taxi To The Dark Side“/”Enron”/”Client 9”) and editor Alison Ellwood, with enough fervor to keep it engaging even if it never becomes profound. It tells about acclaimed author Ken Kesey, already well-received in literary circles as the writer of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes A Great Notion,” who at age 29, in 1964, set-off on a LSD-fueled cross-country road trip from California to the New York World’s Fair. It was filmed at the same time the Johnson-Goldwater presidential race was heating up.

Former college athlete Ken is joined by his many adventurous friends, and they set out to make a road movie hoping to catch the soul of America. The amateur filmmakers shot it on 16MM and the sound on audio tape, but could never get the sound to match the visuals. The film, for many reasons, was never released in theaters, but was shown for a time by Kesey to the participants and their friends in its unedited form after their return and used as an excuse to party. Gibney and Ellwood brought it back to life after viewing almost 100 hours of footage.

When too many hipsters joined the trip, Ken purchased an old yellow school bus and named it Further and the group psychedelically painted it. The bus driver was the burned out 38-year-old Beat Generation iconic figure, the non-stop talker and speed-freak Neal Cassady, the Dean Moriarty character from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” The riders, because of their free-spirit attitude, named themselves the Merry Pranksters.

The group had nicknames like Stark Naked, Intrepid Traveler, Sometimes Visible, Mal Function, Gretchen Fetchin, Generally Famished and Zonker. They took delight in telling yarns about the journey (like getting stuck in a desert mudhole in Arizona and dropping acid while skinny-dipping in the pond), their adventures of dropping acid, their bus trip active sex life, their impressions of travel spots they passed through and what they were all about. This journey was chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” and this pic adds little to that except it lets you see what the Pranksters looked like and to witness through the videos this landmark trek that might have marked for the first-time on a national scale the emergence of the soon-to-be hippie counterculture. But for Gibney to suggest that the Pranksters started the hippie movement, is just stretching things too far. What the documentary does well is reveal how the trip, like all communal ones, was far from idyllic when one gets to shine the spotlight on it but was still a joyous and memorable one. The film also has vintage interviews and interviews with surviving Pranksters, who are articulate in sharing their impressions.

The World’s Fair visit was a disappointment to the Pranksters because of its corporate nature, as the journey itself became the valued part of the trip and not the end goal. Another disappointment was a visit to acid guru Timothy Leary’s vast farm in Millbrook, N.Y. The Pranksters were poorly received by the East Coast heads because of their frivolous attitude. The East Coast group took their acid experience in a more clinical way, and looked down on the hedonist West Coast heads as lightweights. Thereby the great hippie meeting of the two leading proponents of the movement fizzled and the Pranksters returned home. The bus, with different riders for different events, was used for the last time in Woodstock, and remains retired sitting idle at Kesey’s Oregon farm. Kesey died in 2001.

All the film can do is suggest to us what a “long, strange trip”it has been, thereby echoing the lyrics in the Grateful Dead song.Perhaps this is good enough, since it lets us see the Pranksters tripping and acting goofy–a sign of things to come in the counter-culture days ahead.


REVIEWED ON 11/23/2011 GRADE: B+