Magic Bus- the story of Ken Kesey and the most famous trip of them all
Magic Bus- the story of Ken Kesey and the most famous trip of them all

Magic Bus- the story of Ken Kesey and the most famous trip of them all
Magic Bus- the story of Ken Kesey and the most famous trip of them all

Magic Bus: Ken Kesey’s Search For A Kool Place

DVD review

Magic Trip is released by Studiocanal 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.

The that had 'fuurther' as its destination lived up to its name.

In 1964, Ken Kesey, the famous author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, set off on a now legendary cross-country road trip to see the New York World’s Fair and promote his second novel, ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’.

Kesey was joined by ”ËœThe Merry Band of Pranksters, including driver/speed freak Neal Cassady, the American icon immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s epochal 1957 novel ‘On the Road’, in an old school bus brightly painted in neo-psychedelic colours. Their stoned sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll odyssey (acting as a bridge between The Beats and the hippies) is now regarded as one of the seminal events that finally ignited the counterculture faction that would dominate the latter half of the 1960’s across the world and reverberate into the 1970’s.

Kesey and the Pranksters intended to make a documentary about their trip (Tom Wolfe, though not on the bus, wrote a celebrated 1968 account, ‘The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test’) but the film was never finished and the footage remained virtually unseen.

The problem was Kesey did not bother to bring along any professional cinematographers orphotographers, so the footage he shot, mostly while under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide/LSD (legal across the US until 1968), was in complete disarray. Most of the 16mm film footage was understandably shaky, much of it is fuzzy, and none of it is synced correctly with the audio track tape. For 40 years Kesey himself tried to turn his footage into a film, without success.

After Kesey’s death in 2001, the collection languished in storage until the Oscar 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), and Alison Ellwood struck a deal with the author’s estate.

Kesey with the famous bus years later

For ‘Magic Trip’, Gibney and Ellwood were given full access to 100 hours of raw footage and audio tape, they have remarkably managed to create, using actor Stanley Tucci as a narrator, archive recordings of Pranksters watching the footage years later and a re-synced soundtrack, a fascinating documentary about this remarkable slice of American contemporary history.

Kesey, who had as a college student participated ingovernment-backed experiments with LSD, was convinced that he could spread a message of liberation from stifling US Cold War conformity with his bus of Pranksters. Bedecked in clothes made from the American flag, Kesey wanted to make the point that one could “be different without being a threat.”  The Merry Pranksters are shown mocking the campaigning of right wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater by playing their various wind instruments as a fanfare and driving their bus backwards, creating the first tie-dyed T-shirt with model paint tipped into a stream and breaking the ”Ëœcolour barrier’, by unwittingly swimming in a segregated swimming area during a sojourn in New Orleans. 

When they finally arrived at New York World’s Fair, Kesey and his Pranksters rejected the surreal and kitsch vision of the future presented by corporate America. The shots of a totally wired Cassady (who did not even possess a driving licence), launching into frenzied extended raps at the wheel of the bus before reassuring uncomprehending traffic cops that everything is under control, are priceless.

Yet one of the strengths of the film is that it highlights the downside to Kesey’s apolitical freewheeling trip. The roots of Kesey’s ‘consciousness expansion‘ had a much darker origin ”“ Alan Ginsberg (also featured in the footage) discovered the existence of the CIA’s MKULTRA program which wanted to assess LSD’s potential when used in interrogation situations, as an agent of general mind control and against opposing army troops. Kesey, as Gibney and Ellwood show, obviously became disillusioned with the late 60’s drug culture that he helped sire. He was busted for marijuana possession in 1965 and did five months County jail time in California. After incarceration Kesey retreated further into family life, away from the world’s stage.

The choice of music on the soundtrack is superb and captures the expectant ambience of the early 1960’s era before the counterculture explosion ultimately detonated.

The Grateful Dead, who appear in the picture in their earliest incarnation as The Warlocks, dominate the soundtrack (”ËœTruckin”, ”ËœMindbender’) towards the end of the documentary but before that numbers by Dick Dale (”ËœLet’s Go Trippin”), The Rivieras (”ËœCalifornia Sun’, later covered by The Ramones), Jimmy Smith (”ËœI Got My Mojo Working’), Thelonious Monk (”ËœBemsha Swing’) and Mary Wells (”ËœBye Bye Baby’) get a welcome airing.

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s film offers a vision of a time, a place, naive attitudes and events that seem unbelievable to us now. But it did happen, and we are still living with the consequences ”“ both good and bad.

This DVD release comes with a comprehensive compliment of extras. These include a full and engrossing audio commentary with directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, an exclusive Alex Gibney interview with interviewer Warren Etheredge, eleven deleted scenes and Tempo Stimulants (1967), an amusing and rare UK ABC Feature on the effects of LSD upon perception.There is even an extensive audio clip of Ken Kesey being administered LSD in a 1960 government experiment and his candid comments upon the experience.

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