Magic Trip, Alex Gibney & Alison Ellwood, 107 mins (15)

Far out and close up – how Ken and his Merry Pranksters failed the acid test
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The Independent Culture

It's a truism that the 1960s didn't start in 1960: depending on whom you believe, it wasn't until The Beatles came along or Kennedy was shot or the Pill was legalised that the Sixties began to swing.

In Magic Trip, a documentary from Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the narrator declares that the new era dawned in 1964 with Ken Kesey's drug-fuelled, cross-country road trip. By that time, Kesey was feted as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but he felt that his future lay in films, not novels. Determined to create his own psychedelic road movie, he and half a dozen proto-hippie friends painted DayGlo swirls on an old schoolbus, and set off from Oregon to New York, with a fridge full of LSD and Neal Cassady – hero of Jack Kerouac's On the Road – at the steering wheel.

Not surprisingly, their road movie was never finished. After a few private screenings, the footage was left to rot for decades until Gibney and Ellwood reassembled it.

The story of Kesey and his so-called Merry Pranksters will be familiar to anyone who's read Tom Wolfe's masterpiece of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Thanks to Wolfe's jazzy, stream-of-consciousness prose, their misadventures seem heroically strange, so it's disillusioning to see the film shot by the Pranksters themselves. Even in its edited form, it's the worst kind of home movie, a shambolic record of some overprivileged stoners mucking around in a way that you'd have to be very high indeed to appreciate. While Martin Luther King was marching and students were burning their draft cards, Kesey's dilettantes were busy having intense personal conversations with swamp algae. Essentially, they had all the self-indulgence and self-importance that went with an early taste for LSD, but none of the talent that Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles brought to it. It's typical that they paid for a stack of expensive camera and sound equipment to document their travels, but none of them knew how to operate it.

Gibney and Ellwood have made quite an amusing documentary, though, especially when it turns its attention to the history of LSD. But the Pranksters' own antics reek of immaturity and sexism – particularly sexism. It's notable that while the men awarded each other superhero nicknames such as Intrepid Traveler and Swashbuckler, the women got landed with such burlesque soubriquets as Gretchen Fetchin and Sensuous X. One was even labelled Stark Naked, due to her acid-fostered habit of disrobing in public. One night, she wandered barefoot through the streets and ended up being arrested and taken into psychiatric care. The Merry Pranksters merrily abandoned her and kept on driving to New York. Right on, man.

Still, maybe the reason that they seem so pathetic now is that they – or rather, the drugs they took – were simply too influential. Forty years later, it's the "square" citizens of early 1960s New York who look exotic and alien in their space-age, Mad Men metropolis of gleaming cars and pristine skyscrapers. The scruffy Pranksters, on the other hand, could be any bunch of students flushing away their parents' money over the summer holiday – except that they're all too old to be students. However radical it was at the time, the Merry Pranksters' long, strange trip took them straight into the mainstream.

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