Magic Trip


Written by Amelia Abraham
Photos and illustrations by Magnolia Pictures
14 Monday 14th November 2011

However, such points of contention become virtually eclipsed by the wayward and engrossing narrative that is Kesey and his chums’ road trip from California to New York to visit the 1964 World’s Fair. Made famous in Tom Woolf’s book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, the incredible journey is here, for the first time, presented in the form of the original 16-millimeter colour footage shot on the trip. Having been recovered and masterfully restored, the tapes offer an unprecedentedly candid insight into the gang’s adventures; to watch them feels both rare and special.

The trick is, don’t take this film too seriously. It was always Alex Gibney's intention to carry the mood of their youthful subjects in all their anti-establishment glory. All the main characters go by pseudonyms; Generally Famished, Gretchen Fetchin, Mal Function, Stark Naked, Sometimes Missing, etc. It is these characters who, along with Stanley Tucci, present a humourous narration; with voice-overs recorded shortly after filming, there are no 80 year-olds struggling to cat their drug addled minds back. Events are presented basically as they were, the cameras rolling unflinchingly… waiting for the next stoned scenario to unfold.

Allow me to draw upon an example. Cassady (the real life inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s character, Dean Morriarty, in On The Road), driving inebriated through the Arizona desert, spots an oasis-like pool of water and decides he should off-road the bus to reach it. The bus then gets stuck in the mud. While waiting for help to arrive, suggests Kesey, perhaps we should all drop some acid. And so Kesey passes around a dubious LSD-come-orange juice concoction, the ensuing scene resembling a hilarious tableaux of “high times”; Gretchen Fetchin crawls through the swampy pond, elatedly declaring herself “slime queen of 1964”, Kesey squats, merrily playing the flute, wild horses cavorting in the background, while the rest of the gang resourcefully dribble enamel based paints onto the surface of the water to create colourful visuals to marvel at. It is a veritably feast of ridiculousness, as much of the film is.

Yet it’s not all hallucinated butterflies and rainbows. As the road trip rounds to a close, the documentary shifts focus onto Kesey’s notorious West Coast “Acid Test” parties with the likes of the Grateful Dead. Chucking a load of acid in a bathtub and inviting kids to come and grab a cup was never going to end well. Kesey winds up in jail and we’re left with a montage of contemporary footage reinforcing the social problems of LSD use. In terms of harsh reality, the film also offers some new and frank insight on the Beat Generation characters we thought we knew so well. Testimonials from protagonists point to Cassady’s self-indulgence and contemplate his demise, as well as documenting the disappointment that was a haggard Kerouac in New York City, described as a “sad guy”, an “old character”.

Magic Trip doesn’t skirt around the nitty and gritty, and it stands firmly within its historical framework. You will get chills when JFK’s shooting is edited in, you will be made conscious of the racial divides which infringe upon the group’s experiences and there is certainly a sense of the ubiquitous fear incited in American people around the time of the Cold War. A thoroughly American story then, you might look at it like these guys are exploring the frontier of the mind-colonising a new psychological landscape. But you travel to the edge and then what? Like hitting the Pacific, there’s nothing more. “Stark Naked really started wigging out”, narrates Gretchen Fetchin, before the former is carted off to a mental institution, foreboding what was to be the fate of many when LSD went mainstream.

If Magic Trip seems to advocate that the trip is more important than the destination, this is not just true of LSD or Kesey and co’s journey to the World Fair, but life in general. It possesses an infectious air of liberation and fun, but not without providing stamps of warning. It is intellectual, and not to be dismissed as a “stoner movie”. Given the current onslaught of films dealing with the Beat Generation, a concern might be that Magic Trip gets lost in the fray. This would be a crying shame, for Magic Trip trumps last year’s Howl and certainly sets the bar high for Gus Van Sant’s forthcoming adaption of Kool Aid Acid Test and Walter Salles’ version of On the Road. And how does it do it? With belly laughs. Dare we say it, the most fun you’ll have sober for a while.


Magic Trip is out in cinemas Nov 18 and on DVD & Blu-ray on Nov 28. Visit the film's official site here,

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