Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 2011. Magnolia Pictures, History Films, Optimum Releasing, Imaginary Forces, Jigsaw Productions, Phoenix Wiley, A&E IndieFilms. Screenplay by Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood, based on the works of Ken Kesey. Produced by Will Clarke, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes. Music by David Kahne. Film Editing by Alison Ellwood.
The popular conception of the sixties did not begin with the turn of the calendar’s pages, narrator Stanley Tucci tells us, but with a bus trip conducted by Ken Kesey and his band of “Merry Pranksters”. Kesey, already famous for the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was feeling early vibes of the counter-culture movement and, despite thinking himself and his friends too old to be hippies, was looking to break free of the suburban post-war conformity that had defined him for so long. A happily married, ex-college football star, he’d been subjected to LSD-testing while in the army and it gave him a good feel for the stuff. He and his friends purchased an old school bus, painted it up with all the garish swirls and flowers we’ve come to expect from the Flower Power generation and embarked on a trip from Los Angeles to New York where they intended to attend the 1964 World Fair. Kerouac’s old pal Neal Cassady is among the fellow passengers on board this well-documented adventure that Kesey planned to make the subject of a documentary, bringing along a movie camera and taking approximately forty hours of footage that filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have restored to glorious perfection (in part thanks to generous funding from Martin Scorsese’s film foundation, which saw UCLA technicians working on restoration for over a year). When the adventure was over, the footage was screened a few times before being locked away; it didn’t resurface again until almost forty years later and the result is this wonderful time capsule, made with a lot of love and humor, a healthy dollop of cynicism and a wonderful eye for the biography of the man at the centre of it all. The filmmakers also hired a group of actors to provide voiceovers as members of the band, taking their written testimony and speaking it over the footage to gloriously nostalgic effect: these were a group of highly charismatic and charming individuals who had nothing to prove and really seem to be on a quest for happiness. It’s easy to enjoy the carefree manner in which they pursue their bliss, and even when perpetually high don’t seem to be on the road to disillusioned self-destruction that marks the drug culture of the coming years of Watergate and the Vietnam war.