A Compendium of the Best Psychedelic Cinema of the 1960s
By Isabella Moulton
Many of us look back at the 1960s fondly and vicariously, through our modern eyes, but what is it about this period in history that we find so captivating? Despite our visions of “The Sixties” being a safe haven for the psychedelic, freedom-loving generation, it was in fact a turbulent time of extremes. Unity and flower power contrasted with fear and division, while peace and love opposed war and hate. It was a time of revolution and questioning everything from societal norms to what the media was telling us to believe in. Perhaps it is exactly these extremes, and the passion of a people to rebel and fight for what they believe in, which makes us look back at this time with such yearning.
With the 50th anniversary of the so-called Summer of Love having just passed, I find it essential to celebrate the best psychedelic counterculture films of the 1960s, to help us re-live (or live it for the first time) that magical period all these years later.
Here are some of the films of that era that capture its essence:
The Trip (1967): From the evidence of the movie poster and title of the film, The Trip covers one of the most talked about subjects of the 1960’s—LSD. Seeking the help of a guru to guide him on his first acid trip, television director Paul Groves (Peter Fonda) embarks on a psychedelic journey despite having just experienced a relationship crisis. After taking LSD, Groves meanders around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, meeting acquaintances new and old. What follows are disorienting visions in every color; mystifying visions of flowers, women, erotic fantasies, other worldly creatures, and even death play vividly on screen. Directed by Jack Nicholson and depicting scenes from the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip in the 1960s, The Trip is a must see for anyone interested in 1960s counterculture in southern California.
Here’s a glimpse of the mental scenery from Peter Fonda’s acid trip:
Psych-Out (1968): Starring a young Jack Nicholson as “Stoney,” the pony-tailed leader of a band called Ramblin’ Jimi, Psych-Out takes us on the journey of a young, deaf girl through San Francisco to find her brother, known as “The Seeker.” Unsurprisingly, psychedelic music reigns supreme in Psych-Out, featuring the original number ‘The Pretty Song’ by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, which may very well be the most beautiful piece of music ever written! Exploring taboo subjects of the time including drug use, free love, religious extremes and mental instability, Psych-Out captures the turbulent energy of the sixties beautifully through the cinematography of the great Laszlo Kovacs. Check it out if you’re in the mood for a mentally disorienting film with a top-notch psychedelic soundtrack.
Here’s the excellent trailer for the film:
Wonderwall (1968): Taboo love reigns supreme in this film when a loner scientist falls for his neighbour’s much younger girlfriend. Throughout the film we witness how his infatuation with her grows, as his link with reality disintegrates. Filled with eccentric characters, the beautiful Jane Birkin and a soundtrack created by none other than George Harrison, Wonderwall has everything needed to make it an unforgettable psychedelic film. To top it all off, sixties muse Anita Pallenberg even makes a guest appearance.
Here’s the trailer, which really piques one’s curiosity to find out what’s on the other side of this Wonderwall.
Easy Rider (1969): To quote Roger McGuinn from the brilliant soundtrack, “all they wanted was to be free / and that’s the way it turned out to be.” Directed by Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider poignantly illustrates the counterculture movement and tension build-up that defined 1960s America. Following two bikers—portrayed by Hopper and Peter Fonda—and a companion they pick up on the way—a career-launching performance by Jack Nicholson—the film takes us on a journey from Los Angeles to New Orleans, allowing us to see the rise of the hippies, growing drug use, rebellion, violence and everything else that made the 1960s an unforgettable time. Featuring songs by the Byrds, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Electric Prunes, and Steppenwolf, this isn’t one to miss.
Here is the original trailer for the film:
Blow-Up (1966): The ultimate flick about Swinging London that will leave you wondering, “What is reality?” That’s especially so if you’re stoned. Director Michelangelo Antonioni said, “I like everything today’s young people do, even their mistakes, their doubts.” Much of the soundtrack was composed by Herbie Hancock, but the Yardbirds steal the show. They’re filmed at a mod club in front of a mute audience that doesn’t react even when Jeff Beck destroys his guitar, Pete Townshend-style. David Hemmings plays a hip photographer searching for the meaning of life and the nature of reality and instead wanders into the middle of what might be a murder. He’s not sure and neither are we, in the end. Here’s the scene in the mod club with the Yardbirds:
Barbarella: Jane Fonda dolled up by hubby Roger Vadim as a futurist Barbie. As unpromising as that may sound, it is actually an arresting and quirky film, with a screenplay by Terry Southern (Easy Rider, Dr. Strangelove), great light-show visuals and a robot named Duran Duran. In some ways, the trailer is all you really need to see of the movie:
Head (1968): Did anyone even care, back in 1968, that this satiric film, directed by Bob Rafelson, written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, made little sense? Think of it as a 2-hour episode of The Monkees, with cameos by Nicholson, Teri Garr, stripper Carol Doda, Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, and Dennis Hopper. Head begins at the dedication of a bridge. While a local politician fumbles with his dedication speech, The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith) run through the assembly pursued by horns and police sirens. Dolenz jumps to “safety” from the bridge and lands so hard in the water he’s knocked unconscious, while mermaids try to rouse him. And then it transitions into a living room and…oh, never mind.
Just enjoy the trippy trailer:
Wild In the Streets (1968): A rock star president named Max Frost marches all those over age 30 into internment camps, where they are force-fed LSD. Inspired casting included Richard Pryor as an anthropologist turned drummer for the president’s rock band and propaganda wing, Max Frost and the Troopers. The band lives in a commune, of sorts, housed at a Beverly Hills mansion. They burst on the national scene when they take over a political rally for a Bobby Kennedy-like Senatorial candidate played by Hal Holbrook and demand that the voting age be lowered to 14. Because more than half of the population is under age 25, this launches Max Frost’s own political career. “Fourteen or Fight!” becomes their campaign song. Wild In the Streets features cameos from Melvin Belli, Dick Clark, Pamela Mason, Walter Winchell, Ed Begley—all of whom are sent to internment camps (rightfully so!). The soundtrack from this film climbed the Billboard charts, in real life, hitting # 12, riding the hit single “Shape of Things to Come” by Max Frost and the Troopers. Unfortunately, the film was playing in L.A. when real Senatorial candidate Bobby Kennedy was assassinated there at a primary victory celebration.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece must be on this list, if only for the 9-minute “Stargate” sequence.
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966): Arguably the funniest movie Woody Allen has ever been associated with. This is a spoof within a spoof that splices in some great concert footage of the Lovin’ Spoonful who somehow provide the musical backdrop for what is, essentially, a Japanese James Bond movie sabotaged by an unhinged Woody. The Japanese “Bond” is named Phil Moscowitz and, whenever he is in a fistfight with the bad guys, he shouts things like the following as he throws punches: “Saracen pig! Spartan dog! Take this! And this! Roman cow! Russian snake! Spanish fly! Anglo-Saxon Hun!” Sample dialogue: (Japanese spy #1, pointing to a blueprint of a house): “This is Shepherd Wong’s home.” Phil Moscowitz: “He lives in that piece of paper?” Here is the trailer of this hilariously hip masterpiece:
Revolution (1968): The movie isn’t much, being the story of a beautiful blonde “who went to San Francisco and illegally changed her name from Louise to Today”. Billing itself as a “documentary,” it’s more of a mock-umentary as the camera follows Today around, showing that she’s a card-carrying hippie because she “believes that napalm is more harmful than LSD…Today learns more from talking to a little black kid on Haight Street than she did in school.” But the soundtrack featured vintage tracks by Quicksilver Messenger Service (an electrifying “Codine”), Mother Earth and Steve Miller Band. Also appearing in the film are the Ace of Cups, Country Joe and the Fish and the late, great Dan Hicks.
Here’s a typical snippet, with obligatory footage from the streets of hippie-town USA, but a great song by Mother Earth, “Stranger in My Own Home Town”:
Yellow Submarine (1968): This animated film was inspired by the Beatles song of the title, but the Beatles’ voices are dubbed in by other actors. Several people wrote the screenplay, including Erich “Love Story” Segal. The Beatles themselves were hesitant to lend their name to the project. All in all, what should have been a disaster is a trippy, colourful classic with (of course) great music. Once you check out the trailer, you’ll want to see the whole movie:
[This story was adapted from a story that appeared earlier this year in Moof Magazine, in 2015, https://moofmag.com/]