Anyone interested in the much-idolised counter culture of the 1960’s will have heard of Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters; the group of acid-popping artists and creatives who journeyed from the West to East coast of America aboard ‘Further’, their school-bus-turned-hippie-wagon. Magic Trip uses recently-recovered footage to give some first-hand insight into this odyssey.
Alex Gibney is no stranger to splicing together rare sixties footage to put together a documentary, having previously directed Gonzo, the documentary on the life of Hunter S. Thompson. Magic Trip, however, relies less on interviews and retrospective accounts, focusing more on the fascinating, chaotic footage that the Pranksters themselves filmed.
The footage is grainy and amateur, mainly showing the Pranksters tripping out on LSD or blabbering manically on speed. Looked at cynically, we’re essentially watching a group of deluded druggies crossing the States without a real goal or purpose, echoing Jack Kerouac’s influential novel On the Road, which is referenced at several points throughout the film. As such, Magic Trip could be described as a documentary-road-movie.
But in the context of sixties America, Magic Trip is a poignant microcosm of the whole counter culture of the time. As the trip goes on, members of the group begin to fall by the wayside. What begins as a drug-fuelled, idealised adventure turns into a tragedy, as Pranksters disembark the bus through going insane, growing tired of the group and even dying. The chaotic hippie innocence in the early part of the documentary eventually gets subsumed by the encroachment of reality, and this downward spiral is captured well by Gibney.
At times, Magic Trip is chaotic to watch, and the lack of much historical context to the Pranksters’ adventure may alienate some viewers from the colourful orgy of original footage we’re treated with. However, even providing more historical context would do little to help some people understand the nature of this adventure. Rather than try to rationalise the madness, the director embraces and astutely captures the spirit of the Sixties counter culture, if not so much the logic behind it.
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