[AFI 2020] MY PSYCHEDELIC LOVE STORY -- Another Stylish Stranger-Than-Fiction Documentary by Errol Morris
Review by Sean Boelman
Forty-two years after his debut, documentarian Errol Morris still manages to be one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers working in the field. And while his latest, My Psychedelic Love Story, is comparatively quaint to his more powerful early films, it’s still a fascinating story told in Morris’s signature slick fashion.
In the movie, Morris interviews Joanna Harcourt-Smith, former lover of psychedelic drug advocate (and later CIA informant) Timothy Leary, as she recounts her passionate romance with him and how she accompanied him during some of the most dangerous years of his life. And even though the title implies that this is just going to be a movie about a couple of hippies, fans of Morris will know that isn’t the case.
Morris follows a similar structure here to his normal formula. Everything starts out pleasantly, the subjects just minding their own business, and then the government gets involved and everything goes to hell. As such, the second half of the film is undeniably more exciting, if only because the story gets crazier at that point.
As expected, the movie is stylistically brilliant. Morris uses Harcourt-Smith’s interview as the meat of his material and uses archive materials, graphics, and B-roll with her narration to supplement it. Something of note is that this film is much lighter in re-enactments than expected, but that is likely because the story already speaks for itself.
However, the shortcoming to Morris’s approach with this particular movie is that it causes him to neglect his strongest asset: Harcourt-Smith. She’s a very compelling subject who has lived quite an eventful life, so Morris has the wisdom to allow her to speak freely on her own. But in framing the story around Leary, some of the personal connection is lost.
That isn’t to say that the film isn’t still interesting — these events make for a fabulous documentary. But Morris’s sensational approach isn’t as fitting for something that is at a much smaller-scale than some of the weightier issues he has tackled in the past. And as a result, the movie feels a bit hollow at times.
There is something to be said about the criminalization of drug use and whether or not it is worth the time and money of the justice system to police these crimes. It’s a hot-button issue today (although there are a few more pressing matters on the plate right now), yet Morris doesn’t do enough to tie Harcourt-Smith and Leary’s story to the modern day discussion.
My Psychedelic Love Story is another strong outing from Errol Morris, even if the tale didn’t need his exceptional flair to be told. Still, those looking for a stranger-than-fiction true story need not look any further than the master of the genre.
My Psychedelic Love Story screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.