By Jason Czajka
My Psychedelic Love Story – a new documentary from American Filmmaker Errol Morris, whose previous documentary effort The Thin Blue Line has often been cited as one of the most influential documentaries of all time – will transport you into a kaleidoscopic and trippy world full of romance and intrigue. As a viewer, we watch as the curtain is pulled back on a specific point in time in the life of counter culture icon Timothy Leary, as seen through the eyes of his “soulmate” Joanna Harcourt-Smith throughout the documentaries 98 minute runtime.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, clinical psychologist and former Harvard professor Timothy Leary had taken the world by storm as he preached the benefits of the use of the drug LSD or “Acid”, encouraging a generation of people that enlightenment can be achieved through the use of the synthetic drug. After being arrested in 1970 for possession of Marijuana and being sentenced to 10 years in prison, Leary managed to escape and find his way across the Atlantic and into the arms of heiress Joanna Harcourt-Smith as they begun a whirlwind romance across Europe culminating in Leary’s arrest again in Afghanistan in 1972. This film, inspired by Harcourt-Smith’s 2013 memoir Tripping the Bardo With Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story – through the use of mind-blowing and trippy visuals, tells the story through Harcourt-Smith’s eyes as she takes the viewer on a journey of their love and adventures and the often ethereal bond that she shared with Leary.
The film itself feels like a trip down a rabbit hole as layer by layer, Joanna Harcourt-Smith presents a love story for the ages complete with interjections of recordings by Leary as given to investigators where he describes Joanna as his world, his everything. As a viewer, you can’t help but feel transported back to a different time where flower power was everything and free love reigned supreme. Harcourt-Smith guides you through the sights and sounds of the time period with her strange and bizarre anecdotes of her time spent with Leary. Directory Errol Morris’s use of colorful and psychedelic cut scenes and title cards help aid the viewer in their journey, as they present an interesting lens through which the story can be followed through. What I appreciated the most about this documentary was how the tension builds throughout the story as we approach the inevitable arrest of Leary by authorities and extradition back to the United States. For the first 45 minutes or so of this story, you can really feel the love and excitement between Leary and Harcourt-Smith grow and develop, but as their time on the run begins to culminate, the mood shifts through the music and visuals Morris uses, causing me to start to feel the fear and dread that Leary and Harcourt-Smith feel as they initially allude authorities. By the time the duo is eventually arrested in Afghanistan, I was left with my heart racing as Harcourt-Smith describes the interactions with government agents, feeling as if I was really there with them.
The latter part of the documentary deals with the aftermath of Leary’s arrest and his cooperation with authorities. His deep and strong bond with Harcourt-Smith leads to him becoming an informant in order to shorten his prison sentence. The viewer is presented with the question – Was Joanna Harcourt-Smith potentially a Mata-Hari or “Sex Spy” for the US government, which may have helped lead to Leary’s arrest? Through her own testimony, even Harcourt-Smith questioned her sanity at certain points and the potential validity to this claim. But ultimately, regardless of the truth to that matter, what we’re left with is the story of a young girl in love, taken in by the charm and appeal of one of societies greatest showman. Harcourt-Smith unfortunately passed away this past October, prior to the release of this documentary, but her story will forever live on through the lens of Errol Morris. This film, while maintaining many of the standard documentary tropes, often diverges into the land of the strange and weird and does a wonderful job eliciting certain emotions from the viewer. This reviewer was left at times like I too was on the lamb with this duo and their crew of misfits. That I could share and feel the love that these two shared. To capture such a response from the viewing of a film is no easy feat and Morris has yet again managed to successfully achieve this response. A highly recommended watch for any fan of the exciting time period of free love and expression. You can find this currently airing on the Showtime Network, check your local listings.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Showtime Documentary Films.