Ken Kesey’s Pranksters Take to the Big Screen

It took an Oscar-winning director to make sense of the drug-addled footage shot by the author and his Merry Pranksters

In 1963, author Ken Kesey came up with the idea of leading a cross-country bus trip from California to New York. (Ted Streshinsky / Corbis)

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Gibney agrees that Kesey was attracted to the chaos of the journey, a chaos amplified by the extraordinary amounts of drugs consumed by the Pranksters.

Unlike many of his followers, Kesey tried to use drugs to explore his personality, not to repeat the same experiences. “You take the drug to stop taking the drug,” he said.

“He was talking about enlightenment,” Gibney explains. “At one point Kesey says, ‘I didn’t want to be the ball, I wanted to be the quarterback.’ He’s trying to gently guide this trip to become a sort of mythic journey rather than just, you know, a keg party.”

In execution, the trip turned into an extended binge, with the Pranksters using any excuse to drink, smoke and drop acid. Early on Cassady swerves the bus off an Arizona highway into a swamp. Kesey and his companions take LSD and play in the muck while waiting for a tow truck to rescue them. Whether visiting author Larry McMurtry in Texas or poet Allen Ginsberg in New York, the Pranksters—as their name implies—become a disruptive force, leaving casualties behind as they set off on new adventures. For viewers today who know the effects of hallucinogens, the sight of Kesey passing around a carton of orange juice laced with LSD is chilling.

Kesey and his companions returned to California by a different route, a slower, more contemplative journey. Gibney likes this section of the film best. By now the camerawork, so frustrating in the opening passages, feels more accomplished. The imagery is sharper, the compositions tighter. The Pranksters detour through Yellowstone, drop acid by a mountain lake in the Rockies, and drift through beautiful but secluded landscapes. Back at his ranch at La Honda, California, Kesey would screen his film at extended "Acid Test" parties, where the music was often provided by a group called the Warlocks-soon to evolve into the Grateful Dead.

Gibney came away from the project with a greater appreciation for Kesey’s presence. “He’s a Knight of the Round Table and a comic book figure all at once, a classic American psychedelic superhero. He’s got the barrel chest of a wrestler, and when he puts on a cowboy hat, he’s like Paul Newman. But there’s always something bedrock, Western, sawmill about the guy.”

Magic Trip lets you participate vicariously in one of the founding moments of a new counterculture. Directors Gibney and Elwood give you a front row seat to the all-night drives, bleary parties, sexual experimentation, mechanical breakdowns, breathtaking vistas, Highway Patrol stops and even the occasional compelling insight into society and its problems. In a sense this is where hippies started, and also where their movement started to fail.

Magic Trip opens Friday, August 5, in selected cities, and is also available on demand at


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