Perhaps more interesting as an example of the power of storytelling than as an in-depth historical examination, Errol Morris’ “My Psychedelic Love Story” — which closes out the AFI 2020 festival on its way to Showtime — marks another case of the documentarian finding a fascinating figure and then allowing that person to tell their own side of the story, leaving it to audiences to decide how much is truth and how much is self-aggrandizing rationalization.
That’s not to say that Morris’ subject, Timothy Leary’s longtime companion Joanna Harcourt-Smith, is any more duplicitous or cagey than any of us; most people, asked to recount their life in front of a camera, will of course tell the most glowing and self-serving version of events — particularly after being publicly accused of skullduggery and bad faith. The tale that Harcourt-Smith has to tell is so figuratively (and for her, literally) mind-blowing, that it makes for a heck of a legend, whether or not it’s history.
It’s an important distinction, because at the time, Harcourt-Smith was branded by Allen Ginsberg and others in the counter-culture as a Mata Hari, sent by the CIA to take down Leary and to turn him into a government informant. In the way she tells it, of course, the sequence of events was far more complicated, and her connection to Leary was a genuine one.
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Leary, the Harvard professor turned “high priest of LSD” in the 1960s, met Harcourt-Smith when he was living in Switzerland and hiding from U.S. authorities who had convicted him on drug charges. Before we even get to Leary’s place in her life, however, she has already regaled Morris with tales of being raised in a wealthy family by an emotionally-abusive Holocaust survivor, and her anecdotes of life in the Age of Aquarius are effortlessly peppered with encounters with the likes of Keith Richards, Andy Warhol, and Diane von Furstenberg.
Her time with Leary — in vintage footage, she extols their “perfect love” — is spent at first on the lam (from Switzerland to Beirut to Afghanistan, where they were eventually apprehended) and then as a spokesperson for Leary while he is behind bars in California. Morris incorporates tape recordings of Leary talking with a prison psychologist about a variety of subjects, with Leary often referencing Harcourt-Smith, and those recordings take on greater weight over the course of “My Psychedelic Love Story.”
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On a broader scale, the film’s portrayal of Nixon’s War on Drugs as an excuse for law enforcement to cut corners on civil liberties — and of his Justice Department’s use of Leary as a straw man in that regard — puts this in the “U.S. government abuses its own citizens” category of Morris’ films, alongside such modern classics as “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War.”
But for the most part, the film focuses on Harcourt-Smith’s stranger-than-fiction life story, which she recounts with the dry whimsy of a prototypical ex-hippie; she’s like the creative-writing professor who talks about “free love” unironically and encourages you to take off your shoes during class.
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Never one to shy away from visual pizzazz, Morris takes the old newspapers and black-and-white photos and intertitles he needs for context and historical purposes, and overlays them with wild, spinning colors that live up to the film’s title. And as edited by Steven Hathaway (“American Dharma”), “Psychedelic Love Story” mostly leaves Morris’ inquiries out of the final cut, although he will occasionally interject a point along the lines of, “In the book, you said you were naked!” in reference to Harcourt-Smith’s 2013 memoir, “Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story,” which inspired the film.
Apart from a third-act twist that may color the way people discuss why Leary became a snitch and what role Harcourt-Smith did or didn’t play in that decision, there’s not a lot in “My Psychedelic Love Story” that’s necessarily going to grab viewers who aren’t already interested in the era and in the notable figures in LSD history. But as a spotlight for a woman who knows how to spin a yarn – and as an inducement to pick up a copy of her memoir – this new documentary definitely finds its groove.