When Ken Kesey and his acid-tripping busload of cronies end their two-week cross-country trip in 1964, they crash a friend’s New York apartment for an all-night party and meet their hero, Jack Kerouac. As these Merry Pranksters dance around playing instruments, badly, the author of “On the Road” grimly dumps cans of Budweiser down his throat.
“He was not enthused with our craziness,” one of the female bus riders recalls. You can’t really blame him.
An equally appealing and annoying feat of demystification, the documentary “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place” puts us inside that paint-splattered bus, up on its roof, and by the side of the highway communing with slimy pond water while blasted on LSD. (The drug-fueled bus ride spearheaded by Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” was first documented in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”)
This offshoot of a stray, innocent thought — Hey, why don’t we check out the World’s Fair in Queens!?!? — took on stranger colorations following the murder of President Kennedy in 1963. Riding high (so to speak) from the success of his novel and its Broadway adaptation, Kesey collected some pals, a lot of drugs, put them all on a 1939 bus and headed out “to experience the American landscape and heartscape,” as he puts it in voiceover recorded not long after the trip happened.
Kesey decided to film everything. But, true to form, nobody really knew how to work the cameras or sync the sound. If nothing else, “Magic Trip” represents an enormous amount of effort: co-directors Alex Gibney (who won the documentary Oscar for 2007’s “Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Alison Ellwood edited 100 hours’ worth of raw film and audiotape into coherent form. It’s a shame the final result doesn’t convince us that their hard work was justified.
“Magic Trip” is a fascinating time capsule. The color footage, while grainy, is often surprisingly lustrous. But the protagonists — who give themselves monikers like Stark Naked and Intrepid Traveler — too often come across as stoned, self-indulgent idiots. At times, watching the movie is like arriving at a party expecting to find everyone amusingly tipsy but, two hours too late, they’re all sloppy and loud.
Its most fascinating figure is Neal Cassady. The inspiration for Dean Moriarty in “On the Road,” he’s a speed freak whose muscled, almost always shirtless body looks like a toned 30-something’s but whose face resembles a grandfather’s. (He would die of exposure, beside train tracks in Mexico, four years after this bus ride, still shy of 42.) “Magic Trip” might have benefited from a tighter focus on him, a strange in-between figure of the Beat explosion — glorious, tragic and conflicted. He was a muse to many but never accomplished much of anything on his own. Ruggedly handsome and married more than once, he also slept with poet Allen Ginsberg for more than two decades. And he’s the last person you would want to drive you cross country, which he does in “Magic Trip.” (At times, the footage looks pixilated, blurred by Cassady’s drug-amped twitchiness.)
For Beat Generation enthusiasts, or anyone who wants to get a you-are-there taste of the mid-1960s on the cusp of the decade’s youthquake, “Magic Trip” is probably a must-see. But fair warning: too often unfocused and overlong, the film digresses with animated simulated acid visions and sidebars about the U.S. government-sponsored LSD studies at Stanford University. It seems to catch a contact high from its subjects as they cruise along on the road to nowhere.
“Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.” A documentary by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood. 107 minutes. Rated R. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.