- History's most famous bus? (Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
The star of Magic Trip is big and immediate, overwhelming and occasionally mobile, as much ugly kitsch as it is unforgettable. And the documentary's star has a name — "Further." The film features what is perhaps the most famous bus in history, the only one I'm aware of that has its own name and immortalized in countless ways, not the least of which is Tom Wolfe's non-fiction chronicle The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Further's bus driver is a legend in his own right — Neal Cassady, the fast-talking, real-life basis for On The Road's character of Dean Moriarty
In 1964, novelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and his Merry Band of Pranksters decided to take to the road with this barely mobile bus they named "Further" and cross the whole country with it in a drug-filled, delirious road trip from California to New York. Amid the sex, acid, and celebration, the proto-hippie travelers filmed hour upon hour of footage, ambitious to craft a great movie from their adventures. They joked and mused about what might emerge from their video cameras once the trip was complete. No cohesive film emerged, but now, in 2011, filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood assemble the footage in a 107-minute documentary aptly titled Magic Trip, a colorful, wild romp into the history surrounding Kesey's pioneering bus trip.
The film was released earlier this month to select theaters around the country. I saw Magic Trip at an 8 p.m. showing at E Street Cinema last night and was immediately drawn in to the swirling world of the '60s. The film's trailer, shown below, gives a sense of how the filmmakers approached the idea of all this old footage. Cameo appearances throughout the film include everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead to Kerouac himself. Kesey and his friends created and represented a culture that in large part was thanks to this exhausting, exhilarating time that could be summed up in the simple phrase: "Are you on the bus?"
What I found most intriguing was what Gibney and Ellwood left out. Unlike Gibney's documentary Gonzo, which details the life of writer Hunter S. Thompson and features many contemporary interviews with personalities like Tom Wolfe and Graydon Carter, Magic Trip takes a highly focused approach and relies almost exclusively on footage from the '64 trip as well as interview audio from many of the principal Prankers to recreate the bus ride. The documentary never mentioned drugs for what felt like the first third of the movie and never once referred to Tom Wolfe or the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the book that's elevated Kesey and his '60s antics into the world's consciousness for the past 50 years.
At the heart of the film is the bus. Gibney and Ellwood succeed enormously at bringing the psychedelic trip to life and make good use of the footage to show us what the bus's riders were truly like. Kesey's sly smile comes to define him, whether joking with his friends or off-handedly telling a reporter he sure hopes he's not a square. The visually stunning, gorgeous video from the trip illustrate the carnival nature of what these men and women embarked on, and the style, with an emphasis on the personalities and nicknames (such as Stark Naked and Zonker). The offbeat, fundamentally strange character of Neal Cassady is omnipresent throughout the scenes as an adored literary icon, high on speed and babbling maniacally in a way that even Tom Wolfe couldn't quite convey in words. Older and at times a father figure among the travelers, Cassady guided the wheel day and night as one Prankster always occupied the passenger seat to keep him company.
In Magic Trip, we ride along with the Pranksters through California, the South, the Midwest, and from Florida up through the East Coast and finally the New York World's Fair and even Timothy Leary's compound. Fascinating footage shows them tripping on acid in fields, swimming in lakes, and startling communities around America that hadn't yet imagined such a notion as a hippie or drug freak.
- Neal Cassady, the speed-driven driver of the bus, is on the right.(Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
What's front and center throughout the documentary is the bus and the American roads it travels on. The contraption initially barely moves when the Pranksters embark on the journey, we see, and over the course of the movie, the physical dynamics are constantly apparent. Quarters are tight, and drugs are seemingly constant. Cops stop the bus repeatedly out of confusion. One of the Prankster women climbs onto the rear end of the bus without clothing and creates a backup of truckers who wanted to gawk at the sight. The bus offers both a sense of open possibility and claustrophobic limits as the drug-fueled, multi-day travels soar into new heights of fun and crash in frustration and anxiety. The road trip is an American tradition, and as the Pranksters emphasize with their flags in the movie, they are deeply American in their own way.
And then there's Kesey, the charismatic, balding leader of the pack. He always waits in the periphery and exudes a weight throughout all the people and moments of the documentary, from his discovery of acid at the hands of government testers to his acid-test graduation ceremonies. He died in 2001.
What's especially sad are the shots of Further as it exists today — lost to nature, half-decayed, the paint barely visible. The documentary is a testament to what it once was, and the greatest success is that the events always feel more present tense than past. This lively atmosphere emanates from the way these bits of footage and audio have been woven together to retell the Pranksters' narrative in a new, true way.
Am I on the bus? With Gibney and Ellwood leading the way, most definitely.