My Psychedelic Love Story, 2020.
Directed by Errol Morris.
Counterculture prophet, LSD advocate and ideological revolutionary Timothy Leary made his mark. This documentary looks back at his contribution to a defining era in American life through the eyes of Joanna Harcourt Smith.
This documentary might focus on Timothy Leary the clinical psychologist, Harvard professor and LSD proponent yet aims beyond that basic premise. It feels like an espionage thriller narrated by the last woman left standing amongst the remnants left behind. However, whether Joanna Harcourt Smith was Leary’s life partner, an orchestrated CIA plant or an ingenious ingénue provocateur depends upon your point of view.
Pieced together by Oscar winning documentarian Errol Morris, this fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of America’s counterculture is riveting. Told through interviews with Joanna Harcourt Smith and then combined alongside audio recordings done during Timothy Leary’s incarceration, My Psychedelic Love Story proves fascinating.
Touching on everything from Presidential politics under Richard Nixon through to encounters with The Rolling Stones, this is as much a snapshot of cultural change as anything else. Through home movies, personal photographs and an ever eloquent ingénue in residence it documents a jet set lifestyle filled with risk and imagination. As a central narrator Joanna Harcourt Smith may not be wholly reliable, yet her tales never veer into outlandish territory.
Whether hiding out in Switzerland or being kidnapped by FBI agents for deportation back to America, everything is told with finesse and embellished with eloquence. A father in international finance and stories about acid induced affairs sit side by side without any apparent showboating. Copious amounts of coupling, consensual drug taking and veiled molestation also play their part and that only just scratches the surface. Meanwhile as international outlaw lovers they took in Beirut, stopped off in Afghanistan and encountered Anita Pallenberg as well as Keith Richards. To a certain degree Errol Morris builds a narrative of such wanton consumption both physical and otherwise, that it begs the question how Timothy Leary’s life partner made it this far.
Strikingly attractive in youth, devastating to behold in middle age and knowingly coquettish even now, she sits throughout exuding satisfaction. Occasional tears are shed for Leary, his lost potential and those who questioned her motives considering their age gap. However, in the main My Psychedelic Love Story opens this era up like a book and invites audiences to dive in.
Self-awareness is never encouraged irrespective of era, while acid dipped ideological theorists like Timothy Leary will always come unstuck. Outspoken progressives and more importantly free thinkers have always worried those with influence. Big business leaders, corporate board members and people in political office feel threatened by the clash of intellect with individualism. These things have the power to compromise the status quo, liberate those not born into money and ultimately instigate change. For that reason anything which is going to inspire, invent and unlock potential in others needs locking up.
What Errol Morris does by shining a light on America’s most infamous political prisoner is highlight these issues through the prism of a counterculture icon. That this love story between Timothy Leary and Joanna Harcourt Smith plays out more like the original Thomas Crown Affair is academic. Revelatory, subtly substantial and not without genuine moments of awe, it stands alongside R.J. Cutler’s Belushi as another home run for the Showtime network.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★