Review: ‘Magic Trip’


1. Watching "Magic Trip" is a lot like watching Neanderthals discover fire. Something amazing has been introduced to the world, a freedom to discover and profligate new things, a new freedom that will change the planet for the better, forever. It is a true game-changer. But the Neanderthals don't know that. They just see fire and go, "Ooooh, fire." And then they set themselves and everyone else ablaze, because they have no idea what to do with fire when they have it. The hippies of "Magic Trip," essentially the first hippies to exist, are given LSD and sexual liberation and the whole world of possibilities now open to them ... and they of course have no idea what to do with them other than act like primitive beasts. "Magic Trip" is basically about a bunch of burnt monkeys.

2. As a sociological document, "Magic Trip" is fascinating. Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and counterculture forefather, decides to use his status as a famous, respected author to gather up a group of like-minded LSD heads to drive a bus across the country, attempting to "create art out of every day life." That vague mission statement basically means dropping acid, acting like insane people, popping in various small towns, having sex with anything that moves and talking Neal Cassady into driving, which was probably the easiest task of all. Kesey, ever the exhibitionist, filmed large sections of the trip with the intention of making into a feature film someday. Just like a hippie, he never got around to making the movie, so filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood cobbled together all their footage, spliced in some interviews and cobbled together a narrative in the way the hippies never could. This gives us perspective that the Merry Pranksters never had; we notice, with a start, and wondering if anyone realizes what just happened, that the Pranksters, while just trying to get stoned and swim, have just accidentally invented Tie Dye.

3. Of course, most of the things the Pranksters do are accidental and usually the result of them stupidly bumping into something. If you believe that most hippies were spoiled kids just trying to have a good time while trying to couch it as some sort of larger, greater good, you'll find plenty of evidence of that here. These really are just a bunch of stupid kids. Kesey, the great author, keeps trying to steer the bus toward some sort of Important Statement About His Generation, but his bus' denizens are more interesting in boinking and toking and taking "spiritual swims," and ultimately he sort of gives up and joins in the hedonism himself. They drive around and listen to music and drop acid and screw. Nice gig, if you can get it. But don't expect me to start thinking of you as Martin Luther King or something.

4. In a way, the film, as valuable a historical find as it is, diminishes the Pranksters and the Boys on the Bus in a way a history book never could. Turns out, it really was just about having sex and doing drugs and being young. That's great and all, but the real seeds of revolution came later, when true visionaries used the tools of the Pranksters (namely, drugs) and used them to invoke societal change. An attempt to connect the bus ride to the civil rights struggle is embarrassing and entirely out of place. These kids weren't any different than the society they were rebelling against; they were just higher. It is telling that when Kesey takes the Pranksters to meet Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, his old Beatnik buddies, they want nothing to do with these idiots; they're just a bunch of screaming stoned apes, after all. There is little profound about the bus tour itself. It's just a party bus.

5. Gibney is an inventive, prolific filmmaker, and I liked his technique of using old interviews spliced with a fake narrator/questioner to keep the film moving; the film has more narrative momentum than its subjects, that's for sure. But I still can't help but think he and Ellwood are a little more in love with the Pranksters than they should be. When you meet the Pranksters who are still alive today, they all look back on their bus ride with fondness, wistful for the youth they have lost. But none of them are hippies anymore. They all have real jobs, like real adults. The system they claimed they were trying to change did change, but not by anything they did. They look back the same way anybody looks back at their youth; like they wish they could have that much fun again. These Pranksters were handed fire -- fire! -- and they of course tried to eat it. You had to be there, I guess. "Magic Trip" strikes me as your uncle showing old film stripes of his Best Vacation Ever in his basement, only with more colors and better music. This is just monkeys eating fire.

Grade: C+