Movie review: ‘Magic Trip’ is a psychedelic trip to nowhere

The documentary “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place” seems intended as a pleasant nostalgia tour that cycles through some of the hoariest conventional wisdom about the 1960s.

Directed by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, the film is constructed in part from recently restored color film footage and out-of-synch audio initially created during a 1964 cross-country bus trip undertaken by author Ken Kesey, flush from the success of his “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” as he made his way from California to New York around the time of the publication of his second novel “Sometimes a Great Notion.”

Along for the ride was a coterie of associates known as the Merry Pranksters, who grooved, goofed, loved, tripped on LSD and sometimes attempted to operate the film equipment.

Gibney and Ellwood struggle to create context for or make much sense of the vibrant hodge-podge of material that they excavated from the archives of Kesey, who died in 2001. Their film’s soundtrack frequently doesn’t really go with the image, so that Kesey speaks disdainfully of the film adaptation of “Cuckoo’s Nest” or drops an off-handed reference to “Easy Rider” during sequences set years before those particular cultural artifacts existed.


Audio reminiscences from other Pranksters are handled by voice actors from interview transcriptions, which is not problematic in itself except that the actors often push too hard to dramatize their readings. Stanley Tucci is an unseen narrator setting up some of the pre-existing voice recordings.

Kesey and his Pranksters never did finish their film of the bus journey and a sense of sluggish incompleteness hangs heavy over “Magic Trip.” While the restored footage has a certain vitality — the trim beards, chunky eyeglasses, simple dresses and button-downs of the Pranksters wouldn’t look out of place on the street today — it fails to provide any new perspective or deeper understanding of what those early-'60s hippie-prototype adventurers might have been looking for or what they failed to find.

“Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.” MPAA rating: R for drug content, language and some nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles.