The subject of Magic Trip is the LSD- powered, cross-country road movie orchestrated by novelist Ken Kesey in the summer of '64. More than a footnote but less than a chapter in American cultural history, the voyage taken by a psychedelic Day-Glo-painted school bus filled with Kesey's Merry Prankster pals was part madcap social experiment and part improvised reality show. Kesey's trip was documented by the participants, proponents of the notion that life was a movie in which everyone (or at least each of them) was a star. Excerpts from this footage have surfaced several times over the decades; now the prolific Alex Gibney (Enron, Client 9), working with editor Alison Ellwood, has taken the material—digitally improved and at times painstakingly near-synchronized to the original sound—as the basis for an oral history. Surviving Pranksters are interviewed; Kesey is heard reminiscing with Terry Gross. Magic Trip is somewhat smugly overpackaged in its assumption that Kesey invented the '60s, but Gibney and Ellwood do have a sense of historical evanescence and inevitability. Kesey's eccentric odyssey was almost instantly recuperated on a mass scale. Thus Magic Trip provides a mental match cut from the Prankster-mobile to a commercial tour bus exploring the Haight three years later, and concludes on a nostalgic note with the inevitable Grateful Dead anthem "Truckin'." What it lacks, perhaps unavoidably, is a sense of the cosmic Now; the movie recovers, without exactly illuminating, a "long, strange trip" that seems all the stranger as it recedes into the past.
Cassady at the wheel, on the road.
Opens at Varsity, Fri., Aug. 26. Rated R. 107 minutes.