USA, 2011, 90 min
Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters set out from La Honda, California to Tomorrowland, New York in a tricked out psychedelic school bus named Furthur. The trip began Kesey’s transformation from celebrated author (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to lightning rod for the counterculture. From town to town, Kesey and friends explicitly challenged conformity and, upon their return, courted government scrutiny by publicly advocating for the use of psychotropic drugs with the Acid Tests in San Francisco. Perhaps not as well known is that the bus trip was heavily documented in 16mm footage, audio tapings and photographs. These incredibly rich primary recordings were recently unearthed and edited by codirectors Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, 2007) and Alison Ellwood, providing the basis for their transporting documentary. In the mix is the constant, frenetic blue streak of speed-induced tour guide rap from improbably perfect driver Neal Cassady (inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road), extended discussion and depiction of acid trips (of course), passersby reaction and a meeting with Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) at the East Coast headquarters of ’60s drug research in Millbrook, New York. While these are wonders to behold, the film does another great service to the legend: It grounds it in reality. We see the mundanity of the trip along with the fun. And, as with so much documentation of that pivotal period in American history, we see the vast and celebratory potential for change sadly co-opted, corrupted and stunted.