Errol Morris’ surreal investigations into humanity have been influencing documentary filmmakers for generations, so it was only a matter of time before he began influencing himself. Morris’ last effort, the 2018 Steve Bannon one-on-one “American Dharma,” was inspired by Bannon’s own creepy affinity for Morris’ work. Now comes “My Psychedelic Love Story,” which owes its existence in part to “Wormwood,” the category-busting Netflix miniseries in which Morris investigated whether the FBI used LSD to take down government scientist Frank Olson.
That bizarre chapter of ‘60s conspiracy and psychedelia has now birthed another one, as Morris’ feature-length interview with former Timothy Leary lover and FBI informant Joanna Harcourt-Smith came to him because of “Wormwood.” Morris’ movies have always been rabbit-hole journeys that work best when staying true to his playful instincts: “Wormwood” was an intriguing experiment in breaking the familiar Morris mold, but “My Psychedelic Love Story” brings him back to where he belongs.
While “Wormwood” unfolded through ominous interrogation sessions and spooky hotel room reenactments, “My Psychedelic Love Story” gives Morris the chance to show his gentler side, resulting in a sensitive, bittersweet romance that ranks as his most satisfying movie in years. Admittedly, the movie sometimes presses too hard on the style button, turning the Morris algorithm up to 11, from Paul Leonard-Morgan’s euphoric score to a restless editing strategy that amounts to feature-length montage. But even then, it’s a welcome return to form for a filmmaker whose form is all about the slippery search for truth.
The Swiss adventurer Harcourt-Smith encountered Leary during his exile in the early ‘70s, forging a deep bond with him that found them careening from Afghanistan into U.S. custody, where their relationship became a long-distance affair. That story culminated with Leary’s much-ballyhooed decision to go from LSD advocate to FBI informant, as the pair lived under witness protection until the dissolution of their bond. Harcourt-Smith claims she talked him into it after being pressured by forces she didn’t understand. But that’s up for debate, and Morris is happy to have it: He finds the soulful woman decades later, haunted by her unwieldy past, and uncertain how she may have been manipulated into precipitating Leary’s downfall.
At least, that’s how she tells it. Morris is at his best when wandering through the murky corridors of unreliable narrators, and he’s found his most colorful subject here since the dog-cloning eccentric of “Tabloid” 10 years ago. Regardless of how their story really went down, Harcourt-Smith makes for quite the loquacious guide. In revisiting her flower-power origin story, she gives “My Psychedelic Love Story” just enough giddy energy to carry it through a winding path of oddball anecdotes and speculation. As it turns out, the Rolling Stones groupie who fell for the exuberant ex-Harvard philosopher on the lam becomes a delightful entry point for an ebullient counterculture nostalgia trip, which adds a poignant edge the final betrayal that brought their saga to a close.
After a trip to Kabul ends with their imprisonment, Leary and Harcourt-Smith wind up back in the States. With Leary behind bars at Folsom Prison, their relationship takes a series of unusual turns, giving Morris the chance to capture the kind of idiosyncratic observations that often matter more in his filmmaking than facts. Harcourt-Smith’s recollections of helping Leary trip behind bars, by sneaking coating stamps in acid and storing them in her bellybutton when visiting him, instantly becomes a classic moment in a filmography littered with outré observations (“I had an innie and knew how it would be useful,” she asserts).
For all the dynamic energy of Harcourt-Smith’s recollections, however, she’s haunted by the eventuality of their fate. “I’m not a conspiracy person,” she says, but claims that “Wormwood” made her realize just how much the FBI manipulated her — in part through her relationship with fellow informant Dennis Martino — to get Leary to become a snitch himself. Calling herself “an object of entrapment,” she wrestles with the paradox of celebrating her hedonistic past even as it may have been a pawn to a much darker chapter. Taking place against the backdrop of Nixon’s “total war” on drugs, “My Psychedelic Love Story” is at its best when showing how the liberated spirit of the hippie revolution came to a close in part through the disassembling of its own ranks. The intimate nature of that observation injects this intimate little movie a higher purpose.
To that end, the movie spends less time trying to get to the bottom of what actually happened between Leary and Harcourt-Smith (the end of their relationship barely receives more than a minute’s screen time) than her efforts to make sense of it through the intoxicated haze of the past. Though the title pulls from Harcourt-Smith’s own memoir, she isn’t listed as a producer, and Morris certainly doesn’t treat her word as gospel. Instead, it lingers in her obsession with Leary, as she revisits tapes that Leary recorded decades ago and left in her possession. “Even the closest people are light years away from each other,” and she listens, eyes closed, struggling to understand how she missed the big picture.
The material has so much inherent intrigue that Morris sometimes hampers its built-in appeal by overplaying it, shifting constantly to various dramatic angles of his subject and pulling together a dizzying series of cutaway to archival material often doused in kaleidoscopic colors. While the movie looks like it was fun to assemble, it has a tendency to trip over its own footsteps while sprinting through its dense narrative.
By the end, however, “My Psychedelic Love Story” crystallizes its appeal in Harcourt-Smith’s gentle face, as she argues with the filmmaker and herself while talking through her drama until she’s only left with fragments of possibilities. While coming to terms with Leary’s decision — and the idea that she’s not as guilty of his downfall as she thought — the movie doesn’t arrive at any firm conclusions other than the poignance of her emotional state. The movie doesn’t solve the paradoxes of Leary’s life, but it’s in that uncertain region between facts and fabrication that his filmmaking soars, and “My Psychedelic Love Story” that’s still a meaningful trip.
“My Psychedelic Love Story” premiered as the closing night entry of the 2020 AFI FEST. It premieres on Showtime later this year.