'Magic Trip': A rollicking, stoned-out ride into history

The Grateful Dead line "What a long, strange trip it's been" seems particularly apt in the context of Magic Trip, a (counter-)cultural artifact in which the legendary 1964 cross-country bus tour by Ken Kesey and his "Merry Pranksters" is revisited, up close and out-of-sync, thanks to a trove of footage shot by Kesey and his stoned-out companions.

The connection between the Dead and the celebrated author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion - kindred spirits in the early, extravagant use of psychedelics - is alluded to in Magic Trip. (The band's pre-Dead incarnation, the Warlocks, supplied music for many of Kesey's storied "acid tests.") But it's the lysergic soap opera going on among Kesey, Neal Cassady, and various pals, scribes, spouses, and hangers-on piled onto the rainbow-hued school bus that's at the heart of this rollicking road pic.

Codirected by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and his longtime editor, Alison Ellwood, who culled from hundreds of hours of 16mm footage and audio recordings (that were never matched to the images), Magic Trip offers contextualizing narration (by Stanley Tucci), after-the-fact interviews with various principals, and even animated sequences to evoke the hallucinogenic fervor experienced by Kesey and gang. But all you really have to do is look into their eyes.

Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, comes off as especially manic. It's actually scary to think that this motormouth beatnik was behind the wheel for most of the trip - the Merry Pranksters' designated driver!

Kesey, a West Coaster, was planning to head for New York for the publication of Sometimes a Great Notion when he had the brainstorm to do the journey by bus, with his comrades and a couple of 16mm cameras in tow. The author emerges as a contemplative and affable soul - a college jock-turned-LSD philosopher in search of enlightenment. His writer buddies, Robert Stone and Larry McMurtry, show up along the way.

The same epic, and epically loopy, excursion documented in Magic Trip, with its colorful post-boho, pre-hippie cast, was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's groundbreaking The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. To be sure, one gets a better sense of the personalities, and the passions stirring their souls, in Wolfe's book. But Magic Trip literally brings these characters to life.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.


Magic Trip

Directed by Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood. With Ken Kesey, Neal Cass, Stanley Tucci. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 30 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for drug content, language and some nudity).