Tuesday, 15 November 2011

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

In 1964, Ken Kesey, the famed author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” set off on a legendary, LSD-fuelled cross-country road trip to the New York World’s Fair. He was joined by “The Merry Band of Pranksters,” a renegade group of counterculture truth-seekers, including Neal Cassady, the American icon immortalized in Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and the driver and painter of the psychedelic Magic Bus. Kesey and the Pranksters intended to make a documentary about their trip, shooting footage on 16MM, but the film was never finished and the footage has remained virtually unseen.

Alex Gibney is most famous for his Oscar winning documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9, his take on the end of Eliot Spitzer's governorship of New Jersey.  Gibney is at times prolific yet his ability to be almost Winterbottom-esque to his output does not mean the quality of the material is diminished.  Gibney is versatile - overtly political most of the time, he is not an angry documentarian like Michael Moore, nor attempts to be front and centre like his fellow American.  Gibney remains firmly away from the camera, he chooses to use generic documentary conventions like voiceovers and interviews to tell the story.

For Magic Trip, all the material to tell the story has been assembled for some time.  The problem has been one of synchronisation between the visuals and the audio track.  For years, the tapes of film were put into a vault for decades until Gibney and his colleague, Alison Ellwood come to restore pride to the work, they were given unprecedented access to this raw footage by the Kesey family. They worked with the Film Foundation, HISTORY and the UCLA Film Archives to restore over 100 hours of film and audiotape, and have shaped an invaluable document of this extraordinary piece of American history.

The whole essence for the cross-country trip stems from a post-1963 funk that the author Ken Kesey has gotten himself into following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of that year.  The story goes that Kesey was in New York with friends to visit the forthcoming site of the World Fair in 1964 (archive footage of JFK phoning/dialling '1-9-6-4' is particularly poignant), and he hit upon the idea when driving in his Station Wagon and listening to news from Dallas of the President's death, Kesey fell upon an idea to drive cross country in a bus with friends and aim for the World Fair.

The film uses archive interviews with now older travellers reflecting upon their trip as they reminisce and view the footage for the first time in years.  So instead of a narrator, Gibney uses the actual passengers to tell the story and paint the picture along with the masses of visual evidence.  This is an engaging type of direction for this type of picture - instead of talking head interviews with people sat in a dark room, you have this alternative type of director's commentary going on that places you right in the action, making you feel a part of this alternative voyage of personal discovery across America.

Unlike other road trips that have characters who become crazy on the trip, a lot of them admit that they are not all there and are not helped by the doses of LSD they ingest on the journey.

The film apart from a solid documentary about the craziest bus ride it is also a potted history of the use of recreational drug use.  The document also notes about how America is slowly changing and when they arrive in New Orleans, they note how music changes there, how the feminist movement began and how the Civil Rights movement was slowly beginning to rumble as Dr. Martin Luther King made his speech in Selma.

At times the comedy can be a little forced as the group having lived, driven and slept together for so long do struggle for entertainment purposes, Neal Cassady becomes the entertainment chair of the group and at times the joke falls on deaf ears.

Yet that criticism is itself a minor one, as the film is cleverly about more than the trip but about the creation of friendships and life-long bonds between people who may not ordinarily have been grouped together during a monumental change of the American landscape as music, society and politics were changing forever - with the spirit of Kerouac and the first people who headed out west in search of new frontiers as wind in their sails, or petrol in the bus perhaps.

This group decided to go and see the America they thought they knew, their document stands up as a vital part of the counter-culture Sixties.

The film is in cinemas from 18th November and will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 28th November and is distributed by Organic Marketing.

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