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

Doc is like a hipster's King Tut's tomb, and History Films' involvement assures cable exposure.

The counter-cultural equivalent of an archaeological dig — or maybe an acid flashback — “Magic Trip” is Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood’s reconstruction of the LSD-fueled, bus trip-cum-rolling revolution of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, long pinpointed as the start of the psychedelic ’60s. Fans of the subject matter, especially students of the Beat era, will find this revisionist reconstruction indispensible; others will share the same tedium claimed by some of the principals on the bus. Nevertheless, doc is like a hipster’s King Tut’s tomb, and History Films’ involvement assures cable exposure. Arthouse openings also seem likely.

As explained early on in “Magic Trip,” Kesey and his crew decided to film their journey — begun on the West Coast and aimed like a misguided missile at the New York World’s Fair — and bought the cameras to do it. But they didn’t think, or know how, to synch sound, so Gibney and his longtime editor Ellwood were faced with an editor’s nightmare — miles of film, and no indication of who was saying what or when. As narrator Stanley Tucci informs us in the opening chapters of the film, the Pranksters spent 40 years trying to edit it before Kesey simply put it away.

The solution for Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”) and his longtime editor Ellwood was commentary that the group recorded post-Trip, while viewing the raw footage. These voices provide the soundtrack for the film, along with questions interjected 45 years later by Tucci, and a musical score that eschews psychedelic rock for the music of the period — Ike Turner, Dion, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

The Pranksters — who included novelist Robert Stone, Beat icon Neal Cassady (the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”) and passengers with such nicknames as Stark Naked, Intrepid Traveler and Swashbuckler (Kesey) — were never proto-hippies: They were post-Beatniks, with a far greater affinity for the intellectual adventurism of the late ’50s than the free-love ethos of the late ’60s (not that there wasn’t a lot of love aboard the bus). Kesey was a novelist with two acclaimed books (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Sometimes a Great Notion”), and all had approached LSD not so much to get high, but in search of enlightenment. (The film does go into protracted detail about the history of LSD and, during one particularly lengthy episode, a recording Kesey made while taking a government-sanctioned trip.)

The real bus trip was a relatively anonymous event, although much of what came out of it became part of the cultural infrastructure (yes, the Grateful Dead and their involvement with Kesey is part of the conversation here). The Prankster mythology was really thrust into the mainstream by Tom Wolfe and his nonfiction novel “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which came out in 1968 and inspired all manner of tuning in, turning on and dropping out. There’s no mention of Wolfe in the film, but what Gibney and Ellwood are re-creating is of a moment, and predates the book’s publication.

Production values are largely irrelevant, given the homemovie aesthetic, but the use of period archival footage and music are terrific, and the animation by Imaginary Forces is often quite clever.

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


  • Production: A History Films presentation in association with Optimum Releasing, Imaginary Forces and Jigsaw Prods. Produced by Will Clarke, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes. Executive producers, David McKillop, Molly Thompson, Robert Belau, David Kowitz , Gareth Wiley. Co-producer, Zane Kesey. Directors, writers, Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, 16mm); editor, Ellwood; music, David Kahne; music supervisor, John McCullough; associate producers, Sam Black, Susan Johnson; design/animation, Imaginary Forces. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2011. Running time: 90 MIN.
  • With: With: Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs, Neal Cassady, Gretchen Fetchen, Allen Ginsberg, Stark Naked. Narrator: Stanley Tucci.