MIFF 2011: Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.

26 Jul

If you’re a stranger to the experience of taking copious amounts of hallucinogenic drugs, then Magic Trip’s story of psychedelic trailblazers may open up doors for you. However if, like me, you understand what it is to take all your clothes off by a river at the height of a singing summer, and commune with the cotton wool clouds and the blazing shrubbery, you may feel like this film unveils a mythology to reveal experiences that mirror many of your own.

Ken Kesey, best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, enlisted a florid patchwork of All-American bohemians – the Merry Pranksters – to drive with him from California to New York in the summer of 1964. This litany of LSD luminaries included Neal ‘speedball’ Cassady, the Grateful Dead and Kesey’s best friend Ken Babbs. Their destination: the New York World’s Fair, which turned out to be ‘over before it began’, an event  embodying an optimistic era that was already dead in the water.

Intending to make their own film about the experience, the group’s ambitions were thwarted by the fact that no-one on board had the faintest clue how to operate a camera let alone record sound. The resulting footage is living proof of what happens when you set up a film shoot while the acid’s kicking in. Frivolity aside, they weren’t just pranksters – they were renegades who pre-empted the 1960s countercultural movement before it took hold of popular consciousness.

The directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have created a narrative that dances with colour and life and movement, the film’s raw beauty achieved through the intermingling of DIY footage, animated flourishes, a killer soundtrack and narration by the adult voices of retrospective pranksters.

Magic Trip is a revisitation rather than a recollection. The Pranksters were ‘looking at, not searching for’ and this immediacy is captured by their visceral experiences – all recorded in a naïve and free-form style that relocates us in the grainy buzz of the 1960s.

A brief history of the somewhat sinister context in which LSD use arose, such as through CIA experiments, as well as the political events that prompted people to go off the rails, sheds some sanity on the subject.

Having artfully arranged countless hours of found footage (most without sound, much of it damaged and in need of TLC), the film-makers have  succeeded in  creating a cohesive drama out of  Kesey’s carnivalesque  chaos. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to see what really went on behind the scenes of a fable that has captured the hearts and minds of so many free thinkers. The bus ‘Further’, described by Kesey as looking like ‘a travelling pleasure palace’ but as being its exact opposite, has a magnetic screen presence that propels the narrative into lunatic directions.

Magic Trip is an expression of a free-wheeling spirit that only distantly echoes into the canyons of the 21st century.  As a teenager reading about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s adventures in On the Road, I hoped that one day I would belong to a generation that not only harboured but acted out a similar defiance and rebellious spirit.

Watching this film reaffirmed for me the adult realisation that, as Ken Kesey now states, these characters belong to an ancient tradition of ‘divine losers’: admirable in fighting for what they believe in, they are destined to lose against the system. Magic Trip is a fitting tribute to these anti-heroes in their finest hour.

7 out of 10.


2 Responses to “MIFF 2011: Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.”


  1. Nomination #3 – Best Promotional Effort – Specialty | The Method to our Madness - August 3, 2011

    […] MIFF 2011: Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place. (australianfilmreview.wordpress.com) […]

  2. The Grateful Dead At The Old Renaissance Faire Grounds – 1972-08-27 « Cloud2013 Or Bust - September 1, 2011

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