Joanna Harcourt-Smith took up with Timothy Leary at the height of the former Harvard professor’s counterculture outlaw days. Her globetrotting, whirlwind romance with the High Priest of LSD is a wild enough story in its own right—so much so that she wrote a book about it and then specifically sought out famed documentarian Errol Morris to help tell her story onscreen—but it’s perhaps only the most notable chapter of a much broader life story that’s equally compelling.

Swiss-born and Paris-bred, the aristocratic-descended Harcourt-Smith, as a socialite in early adulthood, also lived with the Rolling Stones and hobnobbed with Salvador Dalí prior to meeting Leary. The uncommon circumstances of her life occupy the periphery of Morris’ My Psychedelic Love Story, as the film is far more focused on Harcourt-Smith recalling her experiences than it is about Leary’s mission. Rather than anything specifically related to advocacy for the mind-expanding power of psychedelics, the most fascinating aspect of this film is a woman near the end of her life recalling and, at times, boasting about the lurid details of her salad days.

Harcourt-Smith serves as Morris’ only interviewee. The documentary works as well as it does thanks to a combination of the acclaimed director’s use of archival footage and flurry of image inserts (ranging from international locales to tarot card art to scenes from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland) and Harcourt-Smith’s affability as she recalls the brazenness and naivety she exuded while forging a deep interpersonal connection with Leary—and then fighting for his release from U.S. prison after his capture in Afghanistan. Those hoping for greater insight into Leary’s work, or even just to hear of his transcendental exploits, may come away from the film wanting more. This is one small, if important, snippet in time for the famous neuronaut, and Harcourt-Smith, while recalling some acid-spangled stories, doesn’t approach these events from a psychological or philosophical angle, but instead a personal one.

Early on, the film plays up the possibility that Harcourt-Smith, perhaps even unwittingly, was a CIA plant to lure Leary toward the authorities. This thread goes unresolved, as even she isn’t sure if she could’ve been manipulated into such a role by one of the plethora of powerful men who crossed her path. But she leaves little doubt about her feelings toward Leary, and the profound influence he would have on her life.

And yet, despite the film’s title, My Psychedelic Love Story gets the most historically relevant mileage out of the focus on the couple’s time apart, as Harcourt-Smith advocated for Leary’s release during his four-year incarceration. She first met Leary when he was already a fugitive on the lam, and he was in prison for much of their five years together, so their relationship was only bookended by relatively brief stints of freedom. During his time in prison, she became his spokesperson and kept his cause of mind-expansion and spiritual development through psychedelic journeys into one’s own head culturally relevant as a Nixonian government cracked down on counterculture and recreational drugs. There’s also room here for wild stories about how she’d pass LSD to Leary on her lips during visitations, allowing the couple to clandestinely trip while inside Folsom State Prison. And recorded prison interviews with Leary also provide an opportunity for Morris to present Leary’s own words about his feelings for Joanna and her importance in his life.

Unfortunately, the dissolution of their romance is hugely anticlimactic. Harcourt-Smith says they simply had a horrible fight and the next morning he was gone. That’s that. But then again, although he is the most famous, Leary is not the most fascinating figure in this film. By her own account, Harcourt-Smith had a tendency to often tell lies in her youth, and Morris even questions the veracity of details in some of her accounts. She agrees many aspects of her story sound crazy, but insists it’s all true. My Psychedelic Love Story isn’t meant as a historical documentary, then, but rather as a chance to peer into the mind and motivations of a woman with access to experiences few others can even imagine. What actually happened is far less interesting than hearing Harcourt-Smith speak her own truths.

Summary
Although Timothy Leary is the most famous figure here, the most fascinating aspect of this film is a woman near the end of her life recalling and boasting about the lurid details of her salad days.
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