‘The idea of hiring a cameraman and a sound man would have been anathema to him’. Footage of Ken Kesey’s 1964 LSD road trip has finally been edited into a (mostly) coherent film. Shot on 16mm film, today he would have used an iPhone and if sober enough the whole footage would have been edited on an app and posted to YouTube before the pranksters reached New York City
In 1964 Ken Kesey embarked on a coast-to-coast-and-back road trip, spreading the word of LSD with a busload of costumed cohorts; it is the stuff of pop-culture legend, and the founding gospel of the hippie movement. But most of what we know comes from Tom Wolfe’s florid account in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s said that if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there, and in a way, Wolfe wasn’t; he didn’t meet Kesey and his Merry Pranksters until they had returned.
It was largely forgotten that Kesey planned his own account of the trip in the form of an improvised movie. The film would be “a total breakthrough of expression”, wrote Wolfe, “but also something that would amaze and delight many multitudes, a movie that could be shown commercially as well as in the esoteric world of the heads.” It didn’t quite work out that way. Yes, Kesey took a 16mm camera, sound equipment and perhaps a few movie-star ambitions, but in place of a script, or a trained camera operator, he took a brigade of college kids, a fancy dress box and substantial quantities of grass, speed and acid.
The results of their endeavours can now be seen in the documentary, Magic Trip, directed by Alex “Enron” Gibney and Alison Ellwood, which stitches together the raw footage that had been stored at Kesey’s home until his death in 2001. Gibney says: “They didn’t really know how to use the equipment properly, or why you had to do certain things. They shot over 40 hours of footage but by the time we got hold of it, it had been badly clawed over and was in a mess. The quality of the camerawork was pretty bad. And they recorded the sound at different speeds, without a clapperboard, so there was no way to synch it with the images. We even hired a lip-reader at one stage.”
Nearly 50 years later, Gibney and Ellwood have succeeded in fashioning it into a coherent film. Magic Trip puts us back in that moment, and drives home how cluelessly square mid-60s America was. There are some priceless moments: a nonplussed police officer pulling the bus over, a grouchy-looking Jack Kerouac unimpressed by the free-spirited youngsters, and a fascinating audio recording of Kesey’s first acid trip in 1960, when he was a student guinea pig in a drug research programme (funded by the CIA – one of the great ironies of the counterculture movement).
On the downside, the antics of these privileged proto-hippies are less fun to watch than they clearly were at the time. “Somebody starts playing the saxophone for the first time, they’re not going to sound like John Coltrane,” says a narrator, as the Pranksters dance around a tree blowing musical instruments.
A similar realisation dawned when it came to what Kesey called “the Movie”. There’s a revealing moment in Magic Trip where the Pranksters sit down to watch the footage at home – and all promptly fall asleep.
“They came up with a couple of versions of it,” says Kesey’s son Zane, co-producer of Magic Trip. “Ken Babbs [Kesey's Prankster associate] edited it together then took it back apart. But that’s the way of the Pranksters; it’s hard to finish an old idea when so there are so many new ones happening.” There were attempts to put the movie together before Gibney came to it. Kesey even wrote a screenplay, The Further Enquiry, in 1990, but it never came to anything. The person who got the most out of the footage was probably Wolfe, who went through it all before writing his book.
It would be some years before Kesey’s influence found its way into cinemas. By the end of the 60s, Easy Rider had taken the psychedelic road-trip experience to the masses. Paul Newman directed and starred in Sometimes a Great Notion in 1971, and Milos Forman’s hit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest arrived in 1975.
“Ken was a master storyteller, but this wasn’t his medium,” says Gibney. He suggests that Kesey’s amateurism was key to his countercultural attitude. “He distrusted ‘experts’. The idea of hiring a cameraman and a sound man would have been anathema to him. Those first two novels were all about that kind of quest for freedom. ‘Don’t tread on me. Don’t let the establishment grind you down. Hang on to who you are.’ He believed in magic and spontaneity. There was not some kind of masterplan for the road trip. A lot it was just a bunch of kids getting high, but I think that has its own charm. They were inventing the meaning as they went along. That’s how history gets made.”
Magic Trip is out now, and is released on DVD on 28 November.
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