All credit to Tom Wolfe and the other fantastic authors of the New Journalism for making Ken Kesey's antics in the mid-'60s seem so important. In a very mild way THIS documentary gives the lie to the notion that being 'On The Bus' would somehow change the world. Thoroughly entertaining for heads that have long held those post-beatnik crusaders in high regard, this collection of footage from their legendary cross-country trip on the bus 'Furthur' is an interesting historical artifact, but maybe not the revelation we had hoped for.
It's a case of a mystical artifact that could never have fulfilled acolytes' desires - had it ever been finished and assembled the way people hoped - actually becoming diminished a bit more now that it's finally seeing the light of day. This is no fault of directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood. They've done a fantastic job putting together the visuals with archival audio, and later interviews and readings, especially since sync-sound never worked for the original filming crew of the Merry Pranksters. What emerges is probably nothing close to what Kesey and the Pranksters intended, with footage of those seemingly carefree days now looking just like an historical artifact of a more innocent time.
Background into Kesey's early life and dizzying success as a Northwest author leads to audio of his first, CIA-sponsored acid trip, and then bleeds into the San Francisco scene, and the be-ins and Acid Tests, (music provided by Jerry Garcia and The Warlocks - later The Grateful Dead) before everyone climbed on the bus. The intent was to 'move beyond acid,' and it was one of the smartest things Kesey did regarding the matter. Realizing the benefits of opening one's mind with psychedelics was quickly degenerating into a party scene, Kesey endeavored to travel cross country in a funky old school bus with a select group of 'heavy heads,' during which time they would try to enlighten the populace and eventually wind up at Timothy Leary's place, where they'd plan the next steps for a conscious revolution. And they'd film the whole thing, turning it into an important, life-changing documentary.
Obviously that never happened, and it's easy to understand why, when considering that most of the Merry Pranksters were mere kids at the time, drug addled and with only Kesey to provide direction while an aging speed freak named Neal Cassady drove the bus. This is quite revealing to those who've read all they can about the Pranksters, Acid, Beatniks and related things, but weren't lucky enough to be there. Cassady, Gretchen Fetchen and the rest all became larger than life, but to see them for real in this footage reveals their humanity in a charming and sobering way. It's a bit sad to see Cassady; obviously super-smart, but basically just a tweaker hanging out with the kids, while those same kids approach their task of enlightening the country by getting naked and frolicking in the old swimming hole, or hopping from bed to bed in a contentious free love atmosphere.
Gibney and Ellwood rise to the challenge of taking tons of raw, silent, footage and melding it with contemporaneous tape-recordings and other materials, to form an educational, entertaining artifact of a long-lost time. Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search For A Kool Place is a nice 107-minute crash course on the Merry Pranksters, for those who haven't studied the time. Those who've owned multiple copies of Tom Wolfe's 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' don't need the background, they'll be chomping at the bit to have their third eyes opened, and their minds blown by the Pranksters' vision. Time, reality, and the vagaries of the drug experience insure that such a vision isn't exactly here, and the Pranksters turn out to be regular old silly humans after all. Except for Kesey, that dude was something else!
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, this trip still looks good almost 50 years later. The Pranksters' footage is all framed at 4 X 3, so most of what you really want to see is pillarboxed, but is as sharp as it's ever going to get (not very) and is suffused with a gorgeous autumnal light and lush color. There's plenty of not-to-bad film damage, and film grain is evident: compression problems, however, are not.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound in English is decent, though by nature weird. Most of the archival audio has a little bit of room-boom and echo, but dialog is completely understandable, without serious damage, dropouts or distortion. The music sounds great as well, and is mixed at a respectful level.
Extras start with a relaxed and pleasant Commentary Track from the directors. It's more-than-worth a listen since not only do they give more background and historical information, but they also explain their process of assembling this movie, making you want to watch it again to appreciate the magic that they worked. 18 minutes of Deleted Scenes will certainly interest anyone who's interested in this movie, and 50 minutes of raw and uncut audio from Ken Kesey's First "Trip" will intrigue those interested in the psychedelic experience. HDNet: A Look At Magic Trip is a four minute EPK-type thing, and the extras package is wrapped up with Previews, Closed Captioning and Spanish Subtitles.
Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood take advantage of unprecedented access to miles of raw footage from Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters' legendary bus trip across America in 1964. Turning a never-created holy grail of psychedelic chicanery (with a purpose, of course) into a fascinating historical artifact, the directors reveal Kesey and crew to be, after all, regular folks. Super-smart, drugged out folks, to be sure, but not the heroes of hemp and hope many wanted them to be. If you've ever considered whether you wanted to be On The Bus, this documentary is for you, even though it might deflate you and make you misty in a sad and serious way. Others interested in this period of history for different reasons will also find Magic Trip to be Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com