The 1960s, a time of free love and drugs aplenty. The “hippie subculture” of this era took root around 1965, spawning a worldwide counter culture movement that still has remnants in today’s society. How this new subculture was established, and spread so quickly around the globe, can be attributed to a variety of factors. Ask those close to the movement and they may have one clear answer to give you, “it all started on the bus.”
The “bus” is none other than a 1939 School Bus purchased by author Ken Kesey (most notably known for “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”) and friends in order to carry them from California to the New York World’s Fair in the Summer of 1964. Kesey and “The Merry Band of Pranksters,” as they would lovingly be known and remembered, all had different reasons for hopping on the bus to New York. Some would make it the entire way, others fleeing the madness for alternate paths to the East or heading home under different circumstances. Kesey may have been the organizer of the trip but it was Neal Cassady, the American icon known for being portrayed in Jack Kerouac’s infamous book “On The Road” that kept the bus moving as its driver. These two famous attendees were joined by a group of others; some single, others a couple, others coupling by the end of the trip, but one thing remained a constant during this cross country bus trip, there would be drugs aplenty–premium grade LCD a favorite–and a general sense of giddiness amidst the tight spaces inside the altered interior of the bus.
Director’s Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood provide with Magic Bus a never before seen experience into the real footage taken during the famed bus trip. After years of attempts by the original members of the ride to piece together the footage and make a film out of it, as was originally intended, many a problem arose and a final product was never to be seen by outside eyes. Until now. Gibney and Ellwood piece together the footage, in chronological order to allow viewer’s the possibility to gaze upon just what happened on this famed bus trip; the bus trip that would inevitably begin the invasion of hippie subcultural ideals onto an unsuspecting nation.
Magic Trip opens just like a children’s narrated story. The voice of Stanley Tucci plays over the images, and playful little screen shots guide us into the beginning of this counter-culture fairytale. The characters, while real people, are all assigned nicknames–the same nicknames they had on the trip; Intrepid Traveller, Stark Naked, and Generally Famished to name a few. They slept in bunk beds that had been installed in the bus. They sang out from the open area up top they cut-out on the bus’ roof. Everyone was doing drugs, most were also having sex, and everyone was in a particular state. Neal Cassidy’s state was a consistent high from speed, enabling him to drive the bus non-stop as well as spout out a consistent dialogue of genius thoughts or meaningless claims. But without Neal as the “father” of the bus this trip would not have been so much fun, or such a good time to watch on screen.
A glitch with the raw footage used was the sound and images did not synch properly. The sound was on a separate cassette tape and matching it to the 16mm film footage was not possible. Once Gibney and Ellwood were able to piece together the footage chronologically, and restore it as it was heavily damaged, they made a key decision in how to structure the film for an audience without the use of in-scene dialogue–they used a narrator. Stanley Tucci lends his voice as narrator and asks questions of Ken Kesey that relate to the scene at-hand or another item and these questions are then answered by Ken using the original recordings he made during the trip. The technique works wonderfully, as does the rest of the audio footage interviews used from other bus riders that lends a unique voice to a variety of characters and scenes throughout the film.
Magic Trip is all about the “trip” this bunch of people took but it also provides a little extra knowledge for the viewer. Ken Kesey was part of the CIA LSD tests in the 1960s. Under the rouse that they were testing a drug that could help people who suffered from mental disorders he willingly accepted the invitation to participate, as did many other private citizens and government employees. Kesey was given LCD and asked to observe the effects while locked in a room with a tape recorder. The original recordings of his drug test existed and were used in Magic Trip. In possibly the most interesting sequence of the entire film an animated “trip” occurs as Kesey describes just what is going on inside his head on LSD. Kesey’s experience will directly influence what occurs on the bus, as he claims to have the last bit of this premium grade LSD–and everyone on the bus gets the chance to take this famed drug, for better or worse.
Magic Trip is a magical experience for the viewer. It provides a glimpse inside a moment in time when the world was changing, and a group of people were directly involved in the change. There may not be any grand political conversations during the bus trip, or signs of this group of people gearing for change. Instead it is a very free-spirited engagement with a group of individualists during a time when the cookie-cutter 1950s lifestyle was breaking apart at the seams, and the counter-culture was building ground. In the end, it is all just one great adventure on “the bus”–and it need not be anything more.
–Watch the film now at home with on demand: Magic Trip on Itunes.–
About the film:
Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s MAGIC TRIP is a freewheeling portrait of Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster’s fabled road trip across America in the legendary Magic Bus. In 1964, Ken Kesey, the famed author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” set off on a legendary, LSD-fuelled cross-country road trip to the New York World’s Fair. He was joined by “The Merry Band of Pranksters,” a renegade group of counterculture truth-seekers, including Neal Cassady, the American icon immortalized in Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and the driver and painter of the psychedelic Magic Bus. Kesey and the Pranksters intended to make a documentary about their trip, shooting footage on 16MM, but the film was never finished and the footage has remained virtually unseen. With MAGIC TRIP, Gibney and Ellwood were given unprecedented access to this raw footage by the Kesey family. They worked with the Film Foundation, HISTORY and the UCLA Film Archives to restore over 100 hours of film and audiotape, and have shaped an invaluable document of this extraordinary piece of American history.
Website: Magic Trip Movie