Occasionally you meet a raconteur, like Joanna Harcourt-Smith, the central figure in Errol Morris’s documentary “My Psychedelic Love Story,” whose storytelling skills are mesmerizing. You may not believe all of what she is saying — do people really retain such tiny specifics across the distance of decades? — but the confidence with which she narrates her life grips you nevertheless. She is self-mythologizing and grandiose, perhaps, but her stories are marvelous and you listen with your reality monitor turned off.
Harcourt-Smith, with her Euro-accent, is on camera to recall her five-year affair with Timothy Leary in the early 1970s, during his exile from the United States after escaping from the prison where he was serving time on a drug charge. She kept feeling destiny pull them together, she says, and the two daring souls traveled in Switzerland, Beirut, and Kabul while dropping acid constantly. She recounts many anecdotes about being on the lam with him, and they feel like chapters in a rich tour de force, one adventure after the next, with famous characters from Keith Richards to Diane von Furstenberg putting in cameos. (Harcourt-Smith isn’t telling it all for the first time; she wrote a 2013 memoir called “Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story.”) At one point, after Leary winds up back in the States behind bars, she talks about putting LSD on the stamps of her letters to him and sneaking tabs of LSD into Folsom State Prison in her belly button, which, she assures us, is an “innie.”
The more she talks, the more Harcourt-Smith seems like an issue of Vanity Fair come to life. She was the daughter of Swiss wealth, her Holocaust survivor mother mistreated her, and she ran with international hedonistic socialites until she met Leary. Acid was, for her, a way to process her complex youth. It’s a colorful story, and Morris — either inspired by her tales or fearful that her words and her face alone will not compel viewers — pours on the visual accents. Her stories, which span the entire film, are illustrated with psychedelic animations, doctored archival footage, photo montages, and, in an amusing touch, sheets of blotter acid whose illustrations reflect what is being said. At moments, I wanted less busy-ness, but in retrospect the activity on screen adds a fitting hallucinogenic relentlessness to the escapades.
Here’s the thing: The movie supposedly revolves around Leary’s famous decision to become an informant to the government who’d branded him as a dangerous Pied Piper of drug use, and whether or not Harcourt-Smith was unwittingly used by federal agents to manipulate him into it. She approached Morris, and not the other way around, after watching Morris’s Netflix docu-series “Wormwood,” which is about the CIA’s covert LSD program and a related, suspicious death. Perhaps, she thought, he could help her figure out if she had indeed been used. It’s an interesting question, set during President Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” but Morris doesn’t dive into it as deeply as he might. Surely there is a place for ambiguities and mysteries in a documentary so steeped in subjectivity, but he doesn’t appear to have tried very hard to get to the bottom of it. Alas, Harcourt-Smith will never know the answer; she died in October, at 74.
That said, Morris didn’t need to solve that riddle in order to create an absorbing portrait of a magnetic woman, her legend-adjacent life, and her ability to take us on a trip of sorts as she sits in her Santa Fe home. “My Psychedelic Love Story” is a small but resonant piece of the ever-growing chronicles of 1960-’70s drug politics, and it’s an ode to the raw power and electricity of sharp first-person storytelling.
MY PSYCHEDELIC LOVE STORY
On: Showtime, Sunday at 9 p.m.