There's an unwritten law among critics not to reveal the ending of a particular film or television program. However, sometimes exceptions have to be made, even to the most firm rules.
So if you're dying to see "Timothy Leary's Dead," a controversial documentary about the latter period of the life of the man who coined the term "Turn on, tune in and drop out," skip the next couple of paragraphs. (Although you may be sorry you did.)The film, which was co-written and directed by science-fiction author Paul Davids, is a meandering mess than answers few of the most nagging questions about Leary's life. And the final scene, which shows Leary being pronounced dead and his head being cut off and placed on ice, could be the most tasteless thing ever shown in a "serious" documentary.
(Some of Leary's disciples claim that the scene in question may have been faked as a final practical joke. It's hard to be sure, or to understand how anyone could find the gruesome footage funny.)
Davids starts his documentary with news footage reporting Leary's demise and comments from his mourners. He quickly peruses Leary's brief teaching career at Harvard (where he met Richard Alpert, who became the philosopher Ram Dass), his four years at the Millbrook commune (where he was busted by G. Gordon Liddy) and his migration to Berkeley.
Also covered are his brief prison stay and his eventual diagnosis with prostate cancer, as well as graphic footage of his final moments, about which nothing further needs to be said.
Curiously, some parts of Leary's life that could have used some expounding - his spectacular escape from prison in 1970, his brief marriages and odd family life and his "reinvention" via the Internet in the early '90s - are given short shrift. Neither is there any material on his pre-drug years, which would have given the film some sort of perspective.
And as interviewed by Davids, many of Leary's friends and admirers - especially Ram Dass and the "Naked People of Berkeley," a group of aging fortysomethings who are interviewed au naturel - don't come off as particularly intelligent. Neither do his detractors, but what you expect from a pro-Leary documentary?
"Timothy Leary's Dead" is not rated but would receive at least an R for nudity, hospital gore, profanity, drug use and sex.