In 1964, Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set off on an epic road trip across America with his ‘Merry Band of Pranksters’. They shot footage of the journey, intending to turn the material into a film, but failed to do much with it (partly due to technological ineptitude, partly to being massively high on acid most of the way).
Now acclaimed documentary-makers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have lovingly pieced together the material to make a fascinating documentary about Kesey, his trip, and America at a time when the country was on the brink of huge changes. ‘As a film maker it was really interesting that there was all this footage they’d shot of the bus trip, because then you can dig into it’, says Gibney when I meet up with him to discuss the making of the film. ‘Kesey and the Pranksters had been trying to make a movie out of it for years, and never really succeeding. They had versions of it which were, to the outsider, almost unwatchable. You had to ingest massive amounts of hallucinogenic drugs and be, you know, tripping in order to be able to get it.’
The film opens with images of neat picket fences and Mad Men-esque housewives, and quickly plunges into sex, drugs (Kesey initially discovered LSD through an experimental programme financed by the CIA), and rock ‘n’ roll. Kesey and the Pranksters, says Gibney, ‘struck a blow for personal freedom at a time when you were expected to be a kind of cog in a bigger social machine’. There are clear echoes here of the themes Kesey had already explored in his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is set in a mental hospital and tells the story of one inmate’s rebellion against institutional authority and repression. In both the book and in his own life, Kesey was interested in the tension between the individual and society, and the concept of personal freedom versus convention and tradition.
The book that looms largest over the film, however, is Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel On the Road (1957). As Gibney explains, ‘Kesey decides they’re going to take this journey across the country, and I think in part because he’d read On the Road, he understood those myths, and he was going to take that journey on the open road … he understood the poetry of it all, and he was the one along the way who was trying to make the reality fit the poetry, or to find a poetry in the reality.’ Fiction and real life become even more blurred when Neal Cassady – the basis for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road, ‘the holy con-man with the shining mind’ – decides to accompany Kesey on the trip.
Cassady is exactly as Kerouac describes him in the book: you see him driving hair-raisingly fast, delivering non-stop quasi-philosophical monologues, infuriating and entrancing people in equal measure. It’s as if a character from fiction has suddenly stepped off the page and into the real world. Yet sometimes you have the impression the real Cassady is constantly trying to live up to the semi-mythical role he’d been written into. ‘You can see why he must have been attractive to Kerouac and Ginsberg as this kind of mythic action figure,’ says Gibney, ‘but also he becomes trapped in the fiction that they made for him, and so he starts inhabiting this role that now he has to keep writing, and playing, over and over and over again. The words are always new, but it seems like he keeps ploughing the same ground. All he can do is keep moving forward, keep driving the bus, over and over and over again.’
Kerouac himself also has a cameo in the film – he’s seen sulking in a chair at a party, thoroughly unamused by the japes of Pranksters. It’s a gripping moment: the author who at least partly inspired the Pranksters’ trip is so clearly uncomfortable with the legacy he himself had created. ‘He was a completely bitter guy. I mean he dissolved into alcoholism, and I don’t think he really ever reckoned with his own fame,’ says Gibney. ‘There were other books he wrote after On the Road and some of them were good, but he didn’t really know what to do with that fame. He got lost.’
Magic Trip, then, is essential viewing for anyone interested in the Beats, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the era in general. What could have been an incoherent account of a rambling road trip, turns out to be an altogether more interesting (and often very funny) depiction of an innocent, experimental period in American history and a group of people who saw themselves as ‘explorers’ within a great American tradition. And, in the manner of all road trips worth their salt, the Pranksters ultimately discover that the ride itself is more important than their final goal of reaching New York’s World Fair. As Gibney puts it, ‘It was the trip that was the destination. It was not the place, it was the journey’.
Jessica Harrison, Classics Editor
Magic Trip is showing in cinemas from 18th November and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from 28th November.