Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 28th, 2020
My Psychedelic Love Story (Errol Morris, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Three distinct personalities come together in My Psychedelic Love Story: psychologist-turned-LSD-guru Timothy Leary, socialite-turned-author (and podcaster) Joanna Harcourt-Smith, and documentary director Errol Morris. Taking its title from Harcourt-Smith’s 2013 memoir, the film features Morris (American Dharma) asking her questions in an interview photographed from his usual multiplicity of angles, all about her 1970s relationship with the 1960s icon. Almost 30 years Leary’s junior, she met him in her native Switzerland after he had escaped from American prison, attracted by his charisma, as well as to his allure of danger and mystique. Traveling with Leary to Afghanistan shortly thereafter, she was arrested alongside him and extradited to the United States. Now, sitting in front of Morris’ cameras, she wonders if she wasn’t somehow manipulated by the CIA to reel in their prey. A mix of solid history, fable and confessional, with a dash of espionage and a side of drug culture thrown in for good measure, the movie features Morris’ usual evocative aesthetics and fine sense of narrative, sure to hold interest even for those with no prior curiosity about the subject.
I confess to being among that group with very little love for the lore of Leary, yet thanks to Morris I stayed with the story the whole way. Harcourt-Smith (who sadly passed away on October 11 of this year) makes a most engaging protagonist, regaling the viewer with details both salacious and poignant. It turns out she was motivated to work with Morris after seeing his six-part 2017 Netflix series Wormwood, which explored how the CIA may have been responsible for the murder of an American citizen working in the army’s biological-warfare unit. And so she talks: about her own life, about Leary and about their experiences together. She was young, he was not, yet they found, the one in the other, their soulmates. Tripping all the way, they forged a life into the unquantifiable future until, quite suddenly, Leary left her after an argument in 1977. The loss of him still haunted her at the time of filming.
Beyond his expressively composed interview, Morris brings in copious archival footage and still images, as well as audio tapes of Leary, many recorded during his post-Afghanistan prison stint. As a result, we are sent back in time to “turn on, tune in, drop out” with the acid god, himself, and his number one disciple. The director also goes all in with the psychedelic theme via colorful onscreen titles that announce locations, people and more. It’s like a tie-dye pattern come into vivid being before our eyes, sending us on a hallucinogenic journey, no actual drugs required. Missed that era? Have no fear: just sit back and let the vibe wash over you.
The risk of using a single guide into past events is that you end up with a single perspective. Nevertheless, this has become Morris’ stock-in-trade (think The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, to name a few more of his films) and he has a fine knack, most of the time, for sifting through obfuscation to create complex portraits. Nevertheless, some questions remain, which if answered, might have actually contributed to the intrigue. I would have loved to know more about Harcourt-Smith’s children (she had two by the time she hooked up with Leary, who never factor into this particular story) and about the mysterious men who set up her first meeting with her future lover. These lingering riddles may nibble at one’s overall satisfaction, but the psychedelia proves a more powerful narcotic, and the high of what works lasts a good long while.
[My Psychedelic Love Story is available for streaming on Showtime starting November 29.]