sat 20/07/2024

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place | reviews, news & interviews

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

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

The Merry Pranksters' long, strange trip makes a chaotic and confusing film

Too much, the Magic Bus: Kesey and the Merry Pranksters's mobile home from home

Ken Kesey is one of these characters who gets filed under "Counterculture Legend", alongside the likes of Hunter Thompson and Abbie Hoffman, though his accomplishments are somewhat amorphous. His early achievements as a novelist are easier to quantify - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion put him pretty high up in the batting averages of modern American literature - but he gave up literature for film-making.

By his own estimation, his subsequent 1964 road trip from California to the World's Fair in New York with his anarchic band of Merry Pranksters was his finest achievement.

The Pranksters' long-distance bus journey was famously written up by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, even though Wolfe never set foot on the bus, but Kesey's own masterplan called for comprehensive audio-visual coverage from the belly of the motorised beast. The Pranksters' clapped-out charabanc, clumsily splashed with psychedelic daubings and with a destination board proclaiming its objective as "FURTHER", was rigged with cameras and sound-recording equipment, so on-board shenanigans as well as encounters with baffled bystanders could be stored for the movie Kesey proposed to make. The interaction between the creative and free-spirited Pranksters and the uptight world of early-Sixties America would be his subject (Ken Kesey, pictured below).

Part of the process was that the Pranksters would test the elasticity of what we know as "reality" with copious doses of LSD, Kesey having participated in CIA-funded LSD trials while at college. In a spirit of unbounded experimentation, handy film-making standbys like shot lists, scripts or cinematic expertise were not considered necessary. Kesey and his cohorts made numerous edits of the footage for their own purposes, but there was never anything resembling a definitive version, and the mass of material was left in a chaotic and uncatalogued state. The film (mostly 16mm) has also deteriorated with the passage of time.

This new version has been assembled by co-directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, with preservation and restoration assistance from Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation and the Film & Television Archive at UCLA. Culled from 100-odd hours of material, it still makes little pretence of coherence. It's a series of scenes and snapshots from the Prankster journey, which got off to a suitably shambolic start when the bus almost immediately ran out of fuel and then broke down hours later.

We see the drug-addled troupe visiting New Orleans, driving backwards down a main street in Phoenix, Arizona while taking the piss out of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, frolicking around in woods tunelessly blowing saxophones and trombones, encountering bears while driving through Yellowstone Park, and hanging out with a youthful Grateful Dead (formerly The Warlocks, pictured below), who were the house band for Kesey's so-called Acid Tests in California. They visit Jack Kerouac, who scowls at them and hides in a corner, and also drop in on Dr Timothy Leary at his compound in Poughkeepsie, where the Doc was investigating the psychological benefits of hallucinogens. But Kesey's mob found Leary's people too serious and scientific, while Leary's crew apparently considered the Pranksters a bunch of idiots.

Fair enough really. The Pranksters, identified by such nicknames as Intrepid Traveller, Stark Naked, Generally Famished or Zonker, generally behave like a gang of students on spring break, fornicating and getting off their heads on whatever comes to hand. The pretext of undertaking a mythic quest for spiritual freedom and an expansion of consciousness has largely evaporated over the intervening years. They can't even get arrested - cops keep pulling them over and then letting them go again - although one of the girls was locked up for her own safety after wandering off in a psychedelic daze. The arrival of Jack Kerouac's old sidekick Neal Cassady promises some literary legendariness, but he turns out to be a speed-addled bore, babbling a constant stream of gibberish in the background.

Such shape as the film has had to be grafted on by the directors, who added extracts from audio interviews with Kesey in voiceover (recorded by actor Stanley Tucci) and included chunks of interviews with several Pranksters, also revoiced by actors. For a finale, they've chucked in a scene where a much older Kesey stands in front of a crowd, reciting the lyrics of the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" - "What a long, strange trip it's been". From the viewer's point of view, apart from a few glimpses of a strange, lost world, it's quite a boring one as well.

Watch a featurette on Magic Trip

Jack Kerouac's sidekick Neal Cassady turns out to be a speed-addled bore, babbling a constant stream of gibberish in the background


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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