Magic Bus: Ken Kesey’s Search For A Kool Place
Magic Trip is released by StudiocanalÃÂ on DVD & Blu-ray on November 28th.
Ken Kesey was the award winning American author whose ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ remains one of the great books. He wrote a handful of other really good books and was a key figure in the counterculture, linking the beats to the hippies. His journey across the USA in a psychedelic bus was the bringer of the new hippie culture and was written about in Tom Wolfe’s classic book ‘Kool Aid Acid Test’. Ian Johnston reviews a DVD that finally documents this key trip.
In 1964, Ken Kesey, the famousÃÂ author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, set off on aÃÂ now legendaryÃÂ cross-country road trip toÃÂ seeÃÂ the New York World’s FairÃÂ and promote his second novel, ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’.
KeseyÃÂ was joined byÃÂ ”ËThe Merry Band of Pranksters‘, includingÃÂ driver/speed freakÃÂ Neal Cassady, the American icon immortalizedÃÂ as Dean MoriartyÃÂ inÃÂ JackÃÂ Kerouac’sÃÂ epochal 1957 novelÃÂ ‘On the Road’,ÃÂ in an old school bus brightly painted in neo-psychedelic colours.ÃÂ Their stonedÃÂ sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ rollÃÂ odysseyÃÂ (acting as a bridge between The Beats and the hippies)ÃÂ is now regarded asÃÂ one of the seminal events thatÃÂ finally ignitedÃÂ theÃÂ counterculture faction that would dominate the latter half of the 1960’sÃÂ across the worldÃÂ andÃÂ reverberate into the 1970’s.
Kesey and the Pranksters intended to make a documentary about their tripÃÂ (Tom Wolfe, though not on the bus,ÃÂ wrote a celebratedÃÂ 1968ÃÂ account, ‘TheÃÂ Electric Kool Aid Acid Test’)ÃÂ but the film was never finished and the footage remained virtually unseen.
The problem wasÃÂ KeseyÃÂ did notÃÂ bother to bring along any professionalÃÂ cinematographers orphotographers, so the footage he shot, mostly while under the influence ofÃÂ lysergic acid diethylamide/LSDÃÂ (legalÃÂ across the US until 1968),ÃÂ wasÃÂ inÃÂ completeÃÂ disarray. Most of theÃÂ 16mm film footageÃÂ wasÃÂ understandably shaky, much of it is fuzzy, and none of it is syncedÃÂ correctlyÃÂ withÃÂ the audioÃÂ track tape.ÃÂ ForÃÂ 40 years Kesey himself tried to turn his footage into a film, without success.
AfterÃÂ Kesey’sÃÂ death in 2001, the collection languishedÃÂ in storageÃÂ until theÃÂ OscarÃÂ winning director Alex Gibney, who credits include the acclaimed ‘Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room’ (2005), ‘Taxi To The Dark Side’ (2007) and ‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’ (2008),ÃÂ and Alison EllwoodÃÂ struck a deal with the author’s estate.
For ‘Magic Trip’, GibneyÃÂ andÃÂ Ellwood were given fullÃÂ access to 100 hours ofÃÂ raw footage andÃÂ audio tape, theyÃÂ have remarkablyÃÂ managedÃÂ toÃÂ create, using actor Stanley TucciÃÂ as a narrator,ÃÂ archive recordingsÃÂ ofÃÂ PrankstersÃÂ watching the footage years later and aÃÂ re-syncedÃÂ soundtrack,ÃÂ a fascinating documentaryÃÂ about thisÃÂ remarkableÃÂ slice ofÃÂ AmericanÃÂ contemporaryÃÂ history.
Kesey, who had as aÃÂ collegeÃÂ studentÃÂ participatedÃÂ ingovernment-backedÃÂ experiments with LSD, was convinced that he could spread a message of liberation fromÃÂ stiflingÃÂ USÃÂ Cold WarÃÂ conformity with hisÃÂ busÃÂ of Pranksters.ÃÂ Bedecked in clothes made from the American flag, Kesey wanted to make the point that one could “be different without being a threat.”Â ÃÂ The Merry Pranksters are shown mocking theÃÂ campaigningÃÂ of right wing Republican presidentialÃÂ candidate Barry GoldwaterÃÂ by playing theirÃÂ various windÃÂ instruments as aÃÂ fanfareÃÂ and driving their bus backwards, creating the first tie-dyed T-shirt with model paint tipped into a stream andÃÂ breaking the ”Ëcolour barrier’, byÃÂ unwittingly swimming in a segregated swimming area during a sojournÃÂ inÃÂ New Orleans.ÃÂ
When they finally arrived atÃÂ New York World’s Fair, Kesey and his Pranksters rejectedÃÂ the surrealÃÂ and kitschÃÂ vision of the future presented by corporate America.ÃÂ The shots of a totally wired CassadyÃÂ (who did not even possess a driving licence), launching intoÃÂ frenzied extendedÃÂ raps at the wheel of the bus before reassuring uncomprehending traffic cops that everything is under control, are priceless.
YetÃÂ one of the strengths of the film is that it highlightsÃÂ theÃÂ downside to Kesey’sÃÂ apolitical freewheelingÃÂ trip. The roots ofÃÂ Kesey’s ‘consciousnessÃÂ expansion‘ had a much darker origin ”âÃÂ Alan Ginsberg (also featured in the footage) discoveredÃÂ theÃÂ existence of theÃÂ CIA’s MKULTRA programÃÂ which wanted to assess LSD’s potential when used in interrogation situations,ÃÂ as an agent ofÃÂ general mind control and against opposingÃÂ armyÃÂ troops.ÃÂ Kesey, as Gibney and Ellwood show, obviously became disillusioned with theÃÂ late 60’sÃÂ drug cultureÃÂ that he helped sire.ÃÂ He was busted for marijuana possession in 1965 and did five monthsÃÂ County jail time in California. AfterÃÂ incarcerationÃÂ KeseyÃÂ retreated further into family life,ÃÂ away from the world’s stage.
The choice of music on the soundtrack isÃÂ superb andÃÂ capturesÃÂ theÃÂ expectantÃÂ ambienceÃÂ of theÃÂ early 1960’s eraÃÂ before the countercultureÃÂ explosion ultimatelyÃÂ detonated.
The Grateful Dead, who appear in the pictureÃÂ in their earliest incarnation as The Warlocks, dominate the soundtrackÃÂ (”ËTruckin”, ”ËMindbender’)ÃÂ towards the end of the documentary but before thatÃÂ numbers byÃÂ Dick Dale (”ËLet’s Go Trippin”), The Rivieras (”ËCaliforniaÃÂ Sun’, later covered by The Ramones),ÃÂ Jimmy Smith (”ËI Got My Mojo Working’), Thelonious Monk (”ËBemsha Swing’)ÃÂ and Mary Wells (”ËBye Bye Baby’) get a welcomeÃÂ airing.
Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s film offers a vision of a time, a place,ÃÂ naiveÃÂ attitudesÃÂ and events that seem unbelievable to us now. But itÃÂ did happen,ÃÂ and we are still living with the consequencesÃÂ ”â both good and bad.
This DVD release comes with aÃÂ comprehensive complimentÃÂ ofÃÂ extras.ÃÂ These include aÃÂ full and engrossing audio commentary with directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, an exclusive Alex Gibney interviewÃÂ with interviewer Warren Etheredge, eleven deletedÃÂ scenes andÃÂ Tempo StimulantsÃÂ (1967), an amusing and rareÃÂ UKÃÂ ABC Feature onÃÂ the effects ofÃÂ LSDÃÂ upon perception.There is even an extensive audio clip of Ken Kesey being administered LSDÃÂ in a 1960 government experiment and hisÃÂ candidÃÂ comments upon the experience.