Today: June 12, 2024

Magic Trip

Post-World War II writers of the notorious free-spirited and drug lovin’ Beat generation have received renewed attention on the big screen of late.

Post-World War II writers
of the notorious free-spirited and drug lovin’ Beat generation have received
renewed attention on the big screen of late.
Earlier in the year, James Franco
was transformed into Allen Ginsberg, a key player in the movement, in Howl, an
adaptation of Ginsberg’s poem of the same name and dramatisation of the
obscenity trial that followed its publication. The most famous literature produced
by the beat generation, On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s depiction of
his spontaneous road trips with his fabled friend Neal Cassidy across America –
is to be brought to the big screen by Walter Salles in 2012 with an all-star
cast including Kirsten Stewart, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst.

Magic Trip chronicles the infamous road trip many
of the Beats took in an old school bus in 1964, inspired partly by Kerouac’s On
The Road, the defining book of this generation. Organised and led by Ken Kesey,
author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who set out on a LSD-fuelled
cross-country road trip to the World’s Fair. He was joined by The Merry Band of
and driven by Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassidy who, by now, had been
turned into a legend of sorts by the stories recounted in Kerouac’s novel. It
was a year of change and uncertainty – Kennedy had been assassinated the year
before, the struggle for civil rights was threatening to plunge the nation’s
cities into armed conflict and the Cold war looked like it might turn hot. Kesey
claimed he wanted to find some kind of truth and hope for the future while
making a documentary of his drug-addled trip.

However, despite making
many cuts, Kesey never managed to finish his 16mm documentary and, apart for
some drug-fuelled showings in a barn with Cassidy as projectionist, it remained
unseen. That is until Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood
were given unprecedented access to the footage by Kesey’s family. They worked
with the Film Foundation, HISTORY and the UCLA Film Archives to restore over
100 hours of film and audio tape; Magic Trip is the fruit of their labours.

A well as Kesey’s images
the documentary uses interviews carried out post-trip to narrate the story.
This has the effect of incorporating hindsight, instead of an in-the-moment
documentary – but it works because hindsight is a valuable thing when watching
an LSD-fuelled road trip – otherwise the images simply wouldn’t make much sense
to an outsider.

Most interestingly the
documentary looks at the introduction of LSD before it was widely known as a
drug of the sixties. A young, fit and healthy Ken Kesey took part in drug
trials, for what he thought was to help develop drugs for the mentally ill (it
later emerged the American government were testing drugs that they hoped would
make prisoners being interrogated loose-lipped). He was given LSD and
monitored, the tapes of which play out in the documentary. Here Gibney and
Ellwood resort to clichéd psychedelic images to illustrate the Kesey tapes.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting, honest interpretation of the affect of LSD
on a person and a life-changing experience for Kesey.

Magic Trip is essentially
a collection of stories told after a week-long bender; a few brushes with the
law, good times had by all, some ridiculous dancing, a breakdown here and there
and one of the girls nicknamed ‘Stark Naked’ being sectioned after wondering
the streets wearing little more than Eve. They also unwittingly invade a
‘black’ area lake (segregation was still in force), making a pretty quick exit
before starting a race riot. But add in the context and a desire to experience
something different and genuinely make people smile it becomes something more.

However, the heroes,
Cassidy and Kerouac, cut tragic figures. Cassidy, who was a lot older than most
on the bus, is a motor-mouthed speed freak, constantly twitching, rambling to
anyone who will listen and seemingly desperate to live up to his On the Road
character. Kerouac, who only appears once at a party in New York with Ginsberg,
looks like the grumpy old man in the corner suffering from the early stages of
alcoholism. In fact there’s a clear divide between Kerouac and his friends who
inspired the trip and Kesey and his followers who aren’t really welcome in
their heroes’ inner circle.

Magic Trip isn’t the best
documentary you’ll see this year but it’s an interesting snapshot of the time
and images like these are important to preserve. Kesey himself is an
interesting and inspiring individual who managed to avoid the cliché of his
generation of writers, far from becoming a sad, ravaged figure like his heroes,
he lived a long life taking care of his four children and wife, dying in 2001.
Unlike Cassidy and Kerouac. When one of the girls on the bus reminisces about
hearing of Cassidy’s death (he was found dead on a road side in Mexico) she
says she wasn’t surprised: “I imagined myself in his shoes and it was obvious –
there was nowhere else for him to go”.

A draw for this
documentary will undoubtedly be the figures of Kerouac and Cassidy, but it
isn’t their story, it’s Kesey’s and that’s just fine. Wait for On The Road next
year for Cassidy and Kerouac’s story, in the meantime, if you fancy a
Technicolor slice of history, Magic Trip will serve you well.

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