Leary highly overrated as '60s cult guru
June 26, 1997
Web posted at: 4:50 p.m. EDT (2050 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- I'm a child of the 1970s, but I've always been fascinated by the leading voices of the '60s, people whose works were viewed by the public at large as signposts pointing to a reputed brave new world.
What's always bothered me about LSD guru Timothy Leary is that he was considered a messenger on a par with John Lennon and Bob Dylan, when, in fact, he never said or did anything remotely useful. Personally, I think getting naked and staring at a blade of grass for an entire afternoon is a damn sight less constructive than writing "Like a Rolling Stone."
"Timothy Leary's Dead" a new documentary by Paul Davids, gives me little reason to change my opinion of the person who Richard Nixon once called "the most dangerous man in the world." Apparently, Nixon scared easily.
The film, which is culled from tons of newsreel footage as well as from interviews with people who knew and tripped with Leary, sure does skim the surface considering Leary's pharmaceutical attempts to dig deeper and deeper into his own psyche. Leary began experimenting with "magic mushrooms" while still a professor at Harvard in the late 1950s, but the University heads were even more magical, making him disappear forever from their tree-lined campus.
Aside from a clip of Leary telling a wide-eyed reporter about one of his recent journeys to a new dimension, we see very little of this Dr. Leary. He looks like the pre-dirty words George Carlin -- neatly trimmed hair, Brooks Brothers suit and tie. The transition to the flower child Leary we all know could have been made a lot more interesting if only Davids had included more information on this guy. Most Ward Cleavers didn't ingest psychedelics after a tough day at the office, and no reason whatsoever is given as to why this one decided to take the plunge.
From where I sit, one of the major drawbacks of the hippie culture was the self-satisfied aura that surrounded it. There may have been a lot of talk of achieving an open-minded state of grace, but that didn't exclude bitter resentment of anyone wearing a business suit, or spitting on some poor guy who was lucky enough to make it back from Vietnam alive and in one piece. Granted, these are generalizations, but the film inadvertently makes the case that Leary's call to "turn on, tune in, drop out" was only all-inclusive if you wanted to join his side. This should have been a warning sign from the start, yet none of the fawning interview subjects in "Timothy Leary's Dead" seem to have ever noticed.
Like Dylan before him, John Lennon eventually recognized the trap of being considered "a leader" at a time when the party platform cried for everyone to have equal footing.
Then he did the wise thing and got out of the game, retreating to The Dakota to raise his son. Much of "Timothy Leary's Dead" takes place just weeks before Leary's death, and, unlike the smarter icons, the guy just never seemed to know when to put a clamp on it.
Admittedly, he's fun to listen to as he pontificates about everything from "liberating the world" through LSD to the new-new frontier of cryogenics. What he doesn't do, though, is get around to explaining exactly how watching music crawl up a wall or imagining that your friends have turned into giant lizards helps one live a fuller life here on this orb that the less enlightened call Planet Earth.
Not to be heartless, but Leary became an old man, developed cancer, and eventually died ... just like a Harvard professor. The fact that his experiments eventually got him thrown into jail (he escaped, but was finally captured in Europe) is never portrayed in the film as a foolish waste of the precious time that he did have in this life. It's just one more case of Tim being persecuted by the philistines. It just makes you want to spit.
Frankly, Leary always struck me as a charlatan -- a stoner P.T. Barnum who discovered that there's a sucker reborn every minute. His big idea was to never conform to the societal norms -- throw away the uniforms, in other words.
But how is a giant farmhouse full of acid heads any different from a giant White House full of crew-cutted ex-Marines? That's overstating the case, but anyone watching the film can see that what Leary incited was not the forming of a "free" society, but the forming of a "different" society ... except that in his new one, no one could hold a job, so it was much harder to pay the rent. He couldn't have helped people in the long run. I mean, one current-day interviewee is identified as Marty, a member of The Naked People of Berkeley. 'Nuff said.
"Timothy Leary's Dead" is about taking acid and pretending that it's something other than a sometimes exciting, always dangerous way to play roulette with your synapses. There are naked people, from Berkeley and otherwise. Not rated. A very padded 80 minutes.
© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.