Oh, here we go again.
Just in case you haven’t yet had your fill of wheezy boomer nostalgia for “the ’60s, man,” here comes another hagiography for that tirelessly self-congratulating generation, courtesy of directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood. Charting Ken Kesey’s sad decline from brilliant young novelist to drug-addled bore, Magic Trip is cobbled together from some 40 hours of 16mm footage shot by the Merry Band Of Pranksters during their surprisingly uneventful cross-country trip back in 1964.
Painting a school bus in Day Glo colors and christening it “Furthur,” Kesey led a gang with names like Intrepid Traveler, Grethen Fetchen Stark Naked on a long strange trip indeed, with the legendary Neal Cassidy (the real-life inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road) taking the wheel during motor-mouthed amphetamine jags. All this and more was already chronicled with incisive wit by writer Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and if anything, the film proves that some things are better read than witnessed.
It’s mostly blurry, out-of-focus hippie home movies, with some awful dubbing attempting to cover for a lack of sync sound. Stanley Tucci narrates, and at times serves as an interviewer-after-the fact, providing awkward segues for mismatched, poor-quality tape recordings. Kesey considered the bus trip his life’s work, and reading Wolfe’s riveting account at the impressionable age of 17 it was hard not to imagine the experience as some sort of landmark counter-culture uprising.
Watching the film—which was notably already assembled and then deemed worthless with good cause by the actual participants at the time—it’s impossible to envision a duller band of outsiders. Pontificating endlessly in pseudo-profound circles, the blabber-mouthed yahoos take a shitload of drugs and frolic in the woods, blowing into flutes and carrying on about what “America” means. It hardly looks like a revolution, and you won’t find much mention of Vietnam or civil rights. It’s just home movies of a bunch of spoiled rich kids getting wasted.