Sundance 2011: MAGIC TRIP Review

by     Posted 3 years, 192 days ago

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Did you know that people in the 60s dropped acid and it was a really popular time for the psychedelic drug?  I did and most likely you did too.  Magic Trip follows the road trip of author Ken Kesey and his “Merry Band of Pranksters” as they drove across America and did lots of drugs.  What was gleamed from this grand experience?  Did they better understand the heart of America during the 1960s?  Did they learn the strengths and limitations of the counterculture movement?  Did they uncover any truths about themselves?  The answer to all of these questions is “No.”  They did, however, discover that doing loads of psychedelic drugs is awesome.  Not surprisingly, watching the home movies of a group of uninteresting, self-serving quasi-hippies while they regale you with stories of their 1964 summer vacation isn’t fascinating, insightful, or rewarding.

In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and with the coming of the World’s Fair to New York, Ken Kesey decided to assemble a group of friends and travel across the U.S. while doing loads of LSD.  Kesey had first been exposed to the drug during his time at Stanford when it was being used in experiments whose stated purpose was to study its affect on anxiety and depression (it was actually being studied by the CIA as possible interrogation tool).  In the film’s best scene, co-directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood craft a bravura animation sequence set to Kesey’s recording of himself while he was high out of his mind on acid.  Kesey was a true believer in the power of the drug and saw himself as an explorer on a new wave of consciousness.

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And since explorers usually don’t go solo, he brought along a group of friends who we never really get to know.  We’re never really told about how most of the “Merry Pranksters” were connected to Kesey or why they chose to sign up for this psychedelic journey.  Aside from Kesey, the group’s most notable member was Neal Cassady who was the basis for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road.  The group (or at least the men) dressed themselves up in red, white, and blue in order to celebrate America, but like almost everything they seem to do, it seems more like a celebration of themselves.  They bought a school bus, painted it up with psychedelic patterns and colors, and named the bus “Further”.  Once the trip begins, everyone gets little nicknames (e.g. “Stark Naked”, “Zonker”) and then they shot a bunch of footage even though no one knew how to use a camera or sound equipment.

The result is a compilation of the video mashed with voice-over audio (it was never recorded in sync) as well as the surviving Pranksters talking off-camera about their non-adventure.  The big problem with the celebration of the gang’s partying is that it can never properly be conveyed through cinema and in fact, the objective camera shows them for what they truly are.  In one scene, one of the Pranksters recalls how during a trip, she went into slimy water and felt that the algae was calling to her and pulling her deeper into their world.  The film sets this narration against a beautiful image of a submerged camera in vibrant blue water.  Then we cut back to the actual footage and see a chick covered in slime.  Despite their attempts to explain a transcendent experience, it always comes up short and the closest the film comes to conveying the psychedelic experience is when it animates Kesey’s recording of his first trip on LSD.

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Kesey and the Pranksters remark that they “were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.”  They also weren’t eloquent enough to be beatniks and not politically conscious enough to be hippies.  Ultimately, the group comes away looking like a gang that was conscious of their image, but never to its meaning.  Despite the turbulence of the times, they weren’t activists.  The Pranksters were eye-catching, but not noteworthy because they didn’t affect any change or even attempt to.  While they want to claim they were responsible for rise in LSD use in America, there’s no conclusive evidence that they were founders of any real movement that wouldn’t have come about naturally on its own during a time when use of many different drugs were becoming prevalent.  Why should Kesey get more attention than any other group of acid-trippers of the 1960s?  Because he was a literary star and had a sweet ride.

At its best, Magic Trip is nothing more than a vivid historical snapshot of a small group of people engaging in drug-related activities during the summer of 1964.  Unfortunately, it’s a photo we’ve all seen many times before.

Rating: D+

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here.




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  • Spamdude

    I’m really surprised that a film critic would review a film that he has no understanding of. You have totally missed the whole point of the movie! Do some research before you post an utterly stupid sounding review like this. Why did people drop acid in the 60′s? Because THIS was what started it all!

    This was years before the whole acid culture got big, these guys where the guys who started it! They were going to the future festival, but they were actually the ones creating the future, setting the cultural bar for what’s to come etc. This is a movie about what sparked that whole cultural revolution in the 60′s. Like I said…do some research…duh.

  • Keith

    I’d be curious to know it the reviewer has ever taken LSD himself… I’m inclined to think “no”… decidedly so, actually… if so, it must have been really shitty acid…

  • Cosmic Slop

    The reviewer states several times that the acid soaked road trip across America took place in 1964. The whole hippie summer of love took place in 1967. So, it should be obvious that this was before the whole Height Ashbury, Avalon Ballroom thing. In addition had the reviewer done his research he would have realized that the Pranksters were having Acid Tests during this same time. The first Acid Test were taking place years ahead of the hippie movement and served as a place for the general public to be dosed and made aware of LSD and they turned on thousands of people. These people in turn told their friends and they told their friends. The Acid Test were like raves only in 1964 about 25 years before raves. Also, the social climate in 1964 was so unbelievably square that I assume the reviewer is to young to comprehend this fact.

    Matt, Ken Keasy and the Pranksters were a major part of the revolution that took place during 60s and predated what is considered the epicenter of 66-69. They set into motion the modern society in which you now live. Maybe the film is not that good I haven’t seen it but the Pranksters broke down some of the rigid social structures that make you life much freer and fun to live.

  • nazrat

    I just saw the film and was disappointed. It shows it takes more than a camera and cool dudes to make a good film. Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koola Information from that book would have made the film clearer and more interesting. It was great seeing so much footage of Neal Casady, of Jerry Garcia with life in him of Ram Dass, and of other characters, like Ken Babbs. Gretchen Fetchin’s algae experience and Kesey’s trip were the best visual feasts. The reviewer is uniinformed: Kesey was an essential element of the West Coast history. The Grateful Dead got their start at the Acid Tests which originated from showings of the bus trip movie, and the West Coast counterculture acid-linked events began then. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (book and excellent Depp film) are very useful adjuncts to it too. Ken Babbs was an important figure on the San Francisco scene for several years. Nice seeing how little hostility they encountered – Easy Rider is like Altamont compared to Furthur’s Woodstock. BTW, Robert Stone was the best writer to emerge from that time, IMHO, and describes acid experiences in his recent book about the 60′s. He took acid in the same experiments as did Kesey and others.

  • Mark

    The reviewer says “they weren’t politically conscious enough to be hippies.” Reviewer doesn’t understand the era. There was a difference between hippies and New Leftists. Hippies weren’t, strictly speaking, political. They took the stance that spirit changes things, not politics. There was also a difference between hippies and “sex, drugs and rock and rollers.” There were a lot of different tribes, some more sincere than others.

  • Vlad-Drakul

    As many of the other commentators have said. An utterly ignorant and contemptous article by the writer ; so typically uninformed and superficial, Where to start, THese days young reactionaries write trite shallow mockings of deep stuff they cannot fathom.
    A recent low; a typically young sneering writer for the Gaurdian after giving the dreadful film ‘The Doors’ a 1 star review she ended up by saying that the monstrous macho pig Morrison got the film he deserved; a shit one, while claiming no-one today could treat Jim Morrison, the pig male, as anything other than the talentless, hack poet he is deservedly remembered as! Really? THe original Punk hippie?! Meanwhlie the lesser talents he inspired like Iggy Pop get all the rave review s and credit for the Johnny Rotten attitude of confronting their audience for being lame!
    As an original punk; i know the inspiration for us was to rebel against the shit 1970′s (Glitter rock, MOR, top of the Pops) NOT the 60′s intensity we wanted back; but without the cloying self congratulating nostalgia. Don’t agree; well the Talking Heads; Eno, Lene Lovich, Television, Pil and many other were punk hippies without the 60′s style trappings as we saw that long hair and Jeans was the province of squares and bores (the Rolling Stones; rebellion as youth commercial packaging.
    But the squares of my generation who; after I quit the early punk scene as it devolved into Nazi skin music and commercial New Romantics understood the sixties psychedelic heroes were right but had; being pioneers; made mistakes as well as uncovering truths. We ( like lene Lovich being the new Grace Slick; who sold out fast) were determined to avoid the abuse and like the best continue evolving; like Niel Young, Willie Nelson who were in it for the long term.
    THis film is about beginnings. THe very start if you like. There were many differant individuals invloved; some great (Jerry Garcia), other less so. The Grateful Dead went on to be THE band of all time (ok there post 1978 lps stuff lost it but there are still at least 8 hours+ of prime genius to play with (1968-1978).
    Piss on this if you like reviewer; sad indeed; but you are the loser while helping to poison others with your shallow sneering ignorance. Keep it up. Death comes for us all. Laugh at that. Life is to short for losers like you.
    Peace!

  • Tom

    I wish the idiot who wrote this would respond to the criticism on here…(I’m not gonna rip him anymore because I think it’s been said :D) I would however implore Mr. Goldberg to begin a discussion on here so maybe he could educate himself.

  • Kevin

    Two points to make:

    the reviewer is definitely not on the bus, period…

    secondly, the timing mentioned is all wrong – the turbulent 60′s came much later, not 1964. This shit was ground breaking, as I think someone says in the movie. No one, and I stress NO ONE, had gone the places that these guys and gals went in ’64. This wasn’t meant to be a cinematic classic, but more a history lesson, in color, from the folks that were there.

  • GERBAL

    having been 1st exposed to THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST in my h/s years some 30 yrs ago and since reading it at least 10 times over the yearsw i was amazed to hear that this film is a reality and will soon be on pay-per-veiw
    ive read many articles about it since, some favorable…many not but what i find rather blaringly missing so far are the thoughts of the remaining participants/stars of the film…ill wait to see the vid personally or till i read some of those “reveiws” before i even begin to make up my mind about such a work…valuable if for nothing else at least as live footage of the era

  • JC

    HAHAHAHAHA you are the most pathetic person ever! do you even understand what this movie means? they arnt just acid trippers….they are just living life and Kesey was the leader of the group dumbass, he drove th bus, he decided where they stopped and he was a lot smarter than you. you criticize of people for a living you don’t actually do anything…..that matters…..they didn’t care what other people thought and they were care free, noone can live like that anymore this is a groundbreaking movie

  • Captain Amerika

    Rather than his subjects, the reviewer totally displays the characteristics he accuses them of. It is he that is the narcissist wthout any understanding (and a totaly ignorant wanker, too)

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