Kesey and Pranksters ride the magic bus
The most famous motor vehicle in ’60s counter-culture history was a 1939 International Harvester school bus. Psychedelically repainted and dubbed Further, it carried Ken Kesey and a group of friends from the San Francisco Bay area to the New York World’s Fair of 1964 and back again. “A kind of party’’ was how one of the participants, Jane Burton, later described the trip. “Just a bunch of lunatics running around acting idiotic, trying to get to the East Coast somehow.’’
Kesey was already famous, the 28-year-old author of the novels “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ and “Sometimes a Great Notion.’’ His fellow passengers, the Merry Pranksters, became both celebrated and notorious when Tom Wolfe published his account of the trip and the group’s LSD-fueled antics, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’’ in 1968.
The bus driver was none other than Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.’’ Kesey and the Pranksters provided the connective tissue between the Beats and hippie culture. “We weren’t old enough to be beatniks,’’ he said in an interview, “and we were a little too old to be hippies. But everyone I knew had read ‘On the Road,’ and it opened up the doors to us just the same way drugs did. It gave us a new way to look at America and it stirred us up.’’
Kesey and company were as interested in film as they were in literature, though not as interested as they were in drugs. They shot some 40 hours of 16mm color footage. Much of it was a mess, out of synch with the audio. But being out of synch was what the Pranksters were all about. Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, who wrote and directed “Magic Trip,’’ have expertly shaped the home movies. Much of the documentary consists of this footage, which is alive with goofy high spirits. Once the footage runs out, “Magic Trip’’ starts to feel a bit anticlimactic.
There are priceless moments. Kesey asks Cassady if he’d like some LSD (don’t worry, he’s not driving). “I would, yes, I would,’’ he says, his tone hilariously sotto voce. Cassady usually wears a red-striped short sleeve shirt that looks like a reject from every early Beach Boys album cover. A sullen Kerouac pops up, as does his fellow Beat, Allen Ginsberg. The two leading lights of East Coast hallucinogen use, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, get paid a visit.
Gibney and Ellwood pull out all the stops. “Magic Trip’’ includes animation, period news footage, actors reading from transcripts of interviews with the Pranksters, lots of audio clips of Kesey (including one while he was taking an acid trip as part of a government-sponsored medical experiment). The musical soundtrack is wonderfully dense and impressively eclectic - everything from Dick Dale surf music to Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing’’ to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road’’ (of course). There’s lots of Grateful Dead toward the end, too, the band being very much in the Prankster orbit.
Gibney and Ellwood make one real misstep. The bus followed a Southern route, and after the Pranksters pass through New Orleans we get a brief clip of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech. It’s an injection of real-life oxygen into a helium-filled atmosphere. The Pranksters’ nonsensicality suddenly seems trivial and self-indulgent.
That doesn’t mean the triviality and self-indulgence are inconsequential. “Magic Trip’’ feels like a hall of mirrors in which one senses Andy Warhol’s Factory, Norman Mailer’s forays into film, “Easy Rider,’’ Dylan’s Rolling Thunder, and even the post-“Sgt. Pepper’’ Beatles. It’s the movie “Yellow Submarine’’ should have been but didn’t know how to be.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.