Timothy Leary, the rock-star professor of 1960s acid-head mysticism, had a grin that said a lot about him. He was quite handsome, with that mane of silver-dark hair, the jutting chin and Irish eyes, that gleaming wall-of-teeth smile. He looked like a Kennedy brother who never was — a counterculture guru who could have doubled as a politician. The smile is part of what made Leary such an effective Pied Piper. He always seemed to be saying, “I’m tripping my brains out and having the time of my life!” Yet you didn’t have to look long to register that the Leary grin seemed inordinately pleased with itself. It flashed on and off (it was always on for the cameras), and he had a way of beaming that was more than a little unctuous, à la Liberace. Leary never stopped talking about how LSD was going to free everyone, but the main beneficiary of all the good vibes seemed to be him.
The new Errol Morris film, “My Psychedelic Love Story” (it premieres tonight on Showtime), tells a ragtag outlaw romantic saga that centers on Leary in the ’70s, when his heyday as a youth-culture celebrity was mostly behind him but his infamy was still front and center. President Nixon had targeted the drug culture (it was all tied up with his war on crime), and Leary remained the aging poster boy for infusing the drug experience with a high-flown credibility. As a result, he was targeted as a criminal. He was in and out of prison, and early in 1973, seeking refuge abroad, he wound up skipping from Lausanne to Vienna to Beirut to Kabul, all in an attempt to evade the American authorities.
Joining him for this lurching journey of freedom was the much younger girlfriend he’d met only weeks before, Joanna Harcourt-Smith (he was 52, she was 27), a Swiss-born British socialite whose relationship with Leary — she loved, idolized, and devoted herself to him — loosely recalls, in a shotgun renegades-on-the-lam way, the one between Joyce Maynard and J.D. Salinger. Harcourt-Smith, who died just a month ago, at 74, is the central figure — indeed, the only figure interviewed — in Morris’s documentary; the film is her psychedelic love story. She and Leary traveled, in her words, “like shooting stars across Europe, taking acid every day,” and the movie tells the story of that journey, which it presents as a scraggly ’70s version of a stranger-than-fiction, down-the-rabbit-hole odyssey.
Morris, whose voice we hear periodically off camera, treats the film as a true-life thriller with surreal paranoid touches, kicking it off with the suggestion that Harcourt-Smith may have been some sort of CIA plant. The musical score ominously throbs and drones like something out of a Costa-Gavras film. There are reel-to-reel tapes of an interview with Leary in which he seems to be playfully harboring some big secret, and there’s a mention of the fact that he escaped from prison with the help of members of the Weather Underground — which sounds quite dramatic, except that we never hear how it happened.
As a documentarian, Errol Morris has always been a singular visual craftsman (he has the eye of an accomplished creator of drama), and in “My Psychedelic Love Story” he creates pop montages that look like outtakes from “Natural Born Killers.” He also dots the film with allusions that range from Disney’s 1951 “Alice in Wonderland” to multiple iconic images printed on blotter acid like mini Warhol silkscreens, all to create a mythological shell for the tale he’s telling. But the story he fills that shell with turns out to be rather banal, and not all that resonant in terms of its burnt-offerings-of-the-’70s, dregs-of-the-counterculture mystique.
When you watch a documentary, some talking heads are more arresting than others, and Joanna Harcourt-Smith, seated before Morris’ camera, seems like a supporting player who’s been elevated to the lead. She was with Leary for most of five years, in between his fourth and fifth wives, and her story certainly feels like it’s worth a movie, but she’s not a riveting raconteur. She speaks in an extremely deliberate and earnest European accent that makes her sound like Nico’s bureaucrat sister. And though she ran with a lot of hangers-on of the famous, like an acquaintance of Keith Richards who she claims was the subject of “Tumbling Dice,” she’s not a figure of fascination like Patty Hearst, and she’s not the kind of person who ignites the camera lens. She has a socialite’s way of dropping names (“We were staying with this friend of mine, Diane von Furstenberg,” “Adnan Khashoggi gave me a couple of Quaaludes”), and in the films and photographs we see from 1973 and ’74, she comes off as a gravely captivating young woman, with serious dark eyebrows, who was, by her own account, fantastically “naïve.”
Harcourt-Smith appears to have reached out to Morris after being enthralled by his 2017 Netflix documentary mini-series “Wormwood,” which dealt with LSD and government malfeasance in the ’50s. The film is based on her memoir “Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story” (published in 2013), and it follows how she went, in a short space of time, from being Leary’s lover to his comrade-at-arms to, finally, the go-between who brokered communication between Leary and the FBI.
Yet the reason none of this is half as interesting as the movie seems to think is that Leary himself, at this point, had become a rather scurrilous generational spokesman. Early on, we see a black-and-white clip of him from the ’60s, saying, “We’re teaching people how to use their head. The point is that in order to use your head, you have to go out of your mind.” That was, and remains, a daring notion; the idea that LSD could provide a kind of metaphysical therapy, letting you travel outside yourself and then return, has a validity that many psychiatrists now believe in. Leary was a visionary, ahead of his time, and in his way he was fearless. But by the mid-’70s, when he was dropping acid the way most people crack open a beer, he comes off more like an addict and an opportunist, not to mention an aging horndog who tooled around in a canary-yellow Porsche.
The one true eye-opening twist in “My Psychedelic Love Story” arrives near the end, when Harcourt-Smith, in order to help Leary, agreed to wear a wire and engage in fake drug deals to entrap various counterculture lawyer types — and Leary himself turned into a snitch to get out of prison, infuriating such friends as Allen Ginsburg. Harcourt-Smith tells us why he did it, and it’s chilling: The government threatened him in a most unconscionable way. Timothy Leary’s story fits into the larger saga of how drug use, in many ways, has been over-criminalized in America. (There are people who’ve gone to prison for smoking a joint. But if everyone in America who’d ever smoked a joint were now in prison…well, you see where that goes.) But Leary, as the bard of LSD, wound up as both a victim and exploiter of his own fame. Joanne Harcourt-Smith, swept up by his mystique, may have thought she was locked in a story of love and revolution for the ages, but in many ways she was just along for the ride.