Magic Trip is a real-time documentary, cobbled together from 40-year-old film, about a cross-country trek just prior to the big hippie invasions of the mid-to-late 1960s. It’s a time capsule, and it’s a highly informative one for those of us who weren’t there. It’s a jumping-off point to explain the lovefests, the Be-Ins, the protests, the marches, the Woodstocks, and the Altamonts. It’s a relic of its time as well, but it’s also a genuine look at a mostly far-gone time.
It’s 1964. The sixties, we’re told, didn’t really begin in 1960 (or 1961) but rather in November of 1963, when Kennedy was killed. The nation’s innocence was lost, and the younger souls — today’s baby boomers — looked for something to help guide them into the future. The plastic days of picket-fenced houses and nuclear families were disappearing. People needed something new. That something new, it turned out, was LSD — a perfectly legal substance at the time.
Ken Kesey was the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a writer of some reknown. In ’63, he and a few friends were visiting New York City and witnessed the preparations for the following year’s World’s Fair. Kesey, who lived in Oregon, determined on the spot that he’d grab some people and make a trip across America to the fair. The group would up too big for a station wagon, so an old International Harvester bus was procured and customized, including plenty of filming equipment. The bus was painted in an array of bright, friendly, psychedelic colors, and off they went.
The group called itself the Merry Pranksters, and everyone had his or her own nickname. Along for the ride was Neil Cassady. Never heard of him? You should read Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road; the character of Dean Moriarity was based on Cassady. Cassady was a real character, a speed-taking oddity who drove like a maniac and had zillions of stories to tell. All he needed was an audience.
Like most documentaries, Magic Trip will be enjoyed best by those who were present during that era and by those who wish they were. If you’re not emotionally invested in the story, you might think you’re just watching a bunch of wackos on drugs careen about the country, having sex every three seconds and dropping acid. You’d be right, but you might not enjoy it much. And surely not as much as the participants did.
As I recall, the movie uses nothing but the footage shot during the trip to New York, with some new narration by actor Stanley Tucci. This lends quite the feel of veritas to the proceedings; it’s exactly like watching home movies, at least if your family is a little deranged. But drugs or not, what’s interesting is that we see hardly any real conflicts — people get along, for the most part, even when some leave the trip before reaching the final destination. It’s a good-vibe film, and none of it feels manufactured.
I guess that’s what I find most appealing about Magic Trip. It’s honest, and it’s fun. It gives you a glimpse into those sometimes twisted times — times, it should be noted, that look like a cakewalk compared to what we have now. In ’64, we weren’t even heavily into Vietnam, and the anti-hippie tone had yet to sweep the nation. The bus got pulled over numerous times, but since hippiedom was so new, cops just figured the occupants were college kids out having fun. Ah, for those times now.