Ken Kesey’s 1964 drug-fueled bus ride across America with his band of Merry Pranksters is the stuff of counterculture legend, a foundational moment in the hippie movement immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But as Magic Trip, a documentary from directors Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) demonstrates, it’s also one of those events where you really had to be there. The filmmakers have gathered the next best thing—footage shot during the road trip by the Pranksters themselves—but in spite of this honey-toned self-documentation and some trippy visuals from the Imaginary Forces studio, Magic Trip is about as fun as being the only sober person at a party.
Kesey, riding high on the success of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, funded the trip to New York for the publication of his new novel Sometimes A Great Notion. He gathered like-minded pals, bought a school bus the group named “Further,” and got Neal Cassady, the inspiration for On The Road’s Dean Moriarty, to drive. It was not an organized journey. Having spent days painting the bus, the Pranksters finally got on the road, only to immediately run out of gas—they had neglected to fill the tank. The film the group was hoping to shoot as they went was similarly hampered by the fact that none of them knew how to use a camera. Hours of footage was accompanied by hours of unsyncable sound, an issue Ellwood and Gibney circumvent by using audio of the Pranksters’ own accounts of what happened, with voice actors filling in as different members. It gets difficult to keep track of who’s who, but Kesey, always noodling around on a flute, and Cassady, made irrepressibly garrulous by his speed use and the burden of his own legend, remain the two unmistakably larger-than-life, somewhat tragic figures to whom the camera always returns.
The eventual end of the ’60s, the Acid Tests, and the trip itself casts a gloomy shadow over this mellow chronicle, almost before it has a chance to begin. Magic Trip manages to give its characters a little context in the era’s larger social movements, but mostly leaves them looking like a group of people getting high and slowly getting on each other’s nerves. When they finally arrive in New York, they’re met with the twin disappointments of a past-its-prime World’s Fair (the ostensible goal of their journey) and a glum Jack Kerouac, who comes to their celebration, but doesn’t want to play along. Their party was just getting started, but plenty of others were already done.