What a long strange trip, indeed. This documentary about the 1964 cross-country journey of writer Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters, in a school bus piloted by beat generation icon Neal Cassady, is must-see viewing for free spirits of any era. Witnessing the counter-culture craziness of Kesey and company from a distance of nearly 50 years is like watching the anthropological antics of an exotic, alien and long extinct tribe.
Kesey’s bestselling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest already had been adapted into a Broadway play starring Kirk Douglas. His second novel Sometimes A Great Notion was published the same summer that Kesey and his friends departed northern California in a bizarrely painted bus to see the New York World’s Fair. “We weren’t old enough to be beatniks and we were a little too old to be hippies,” Kesey notes on the soundtrack, “but everyone we knew had read On the Road.”
The 16mm color footage and audiotapes made in transit never were assembled into the road movie Kesey envisioned, although several attempts were made. Archivists restored and cataloged the original film and audio elements after Kesey’s 2001 death, then directors Alex Gibney (2008 Best Documentary Oscar winner for Taxi to the Dark Side) and Alison Ellwood worked their Magic Trip magic.
Stanley Tucci was brought in to record the voice of a fictional interviewer whose questions are “answered” by Kesey’s actual voice. Supplementing audio from the period, actors impersonate four of the Pranksters by recreating reminiscences that exist only as transcripts and poor-quality tapes. The cheat generally works, although sometimes it’s obvious that material is being read from a text.
The documentary also uses period film clips, photos and underground-comix-style animation to set Kesey’s journey in historical context. Timothy Leary, Martin Luther King Jr, Jack Kerouac and the Grateful Dead make appearances, along with LBJ’s infamous mushroom-cloud campaign commercial, the Dragnet TV show’s laughable depiction of the drug scene and Allen Ginsberg reading his poem Howl.
Besides Swashbuckler Kesey and Sir Speed Limit Cassady, other colorfully nicknamed passengers include Intrepid Traveler Ken Babbs, Generally Famished Jane Burton, and Stark Naked Kathy Casamo. Slime Queen Paula Sundsten earns her moniker by adorning herself in pond scum during a communal acid experience. Good times!
LSD definitely was the group’s drug of choice, but Kesey makes his fondness for it sound pleasantly innocuous. “I’ve always been a fairly reliable, straight up the middle of the road citizen that just happens to be an acidhead,” he explains.
The only notable prank pulled by the Pranksters during the trip involves painting A Vote for Barry Is a Vote For Fun on their bus before driving backward through Phoenix, as a joking endorsement of conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
If that seems like harmless stuff, Kesey probably wouldn’t disagree. “The notion of us being wild crazies wasn’t true”, he explains. “We weren’t long-haired and we weren’t irresponsible.” Despite the drug use, goofy behavior and a bit of mate-swapping, Burton notes that the bus “was the exact opposite of a pleasure palace.”
Still, Kesey’s quest to “experience the American landscape and heartscape” on a free-form journey with a bunch of friends was a sort of ’60s cultural milestone. And Magic Trip provides viewers with a front-row seat for the ride.