Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully aren’t household names, and even aficionados of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture would likely respond with blank faces at their mention. In the 1960s, Sand and Scully were both young men but they couldn’t have been more different. The swaggering Sand had a big ego and the relentless determination to go with it; Scully was shy, fastidious, particular and brilliant. Despite their differences, the pair had two things in common: they’d both had psychedelic experiences doing LSD. And they were both convinced that they should make a massive quantity of the drug, distribute it and change the world into a paradise that would naturally blossom once all the squares had been turned on. Together they developed a legendary version of the drug known as Orange Sunshine.
It sounds naïve – and it was. But there is also something brave about the subjects in The Sunshine Makers, the 2015 documentary that came to Netflix March 8. There is also something sad about the pair as they’re often bumbling fools when they’re not being insightful revolutionaries and brilliant chemists. Both Sand and Scully are complex characters and they both get their due here as director Cosmo Feilding-Mellen simultaneously uses their crazy tale to dive headlong into an illuminating tour of the psychedelic underground – the underground that Sand and Scully helped to define. The Grateful Dead, Hells Angels and Timothy Leary all make appearances as Feilding-Mellen takes us tip-toing through Haight-Ashbury, flower power, the Vietnam War and President Nixon’s original war on drugs.
The Sunshine Makers is necessarily about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s also about the life-changing potential inherent in the psychedelic experience. Sand is sincere and solemn when he looks at the camera and confesses that during one of his first acid reveries, a voice told him, “Your job on this planet is to make psychedelics and turn on the world.” As we see in this film, he ceaselessly obeyed that voice despite broken marriages, ended friendships and spending a life constantly at risk from the law. Sand is a true believer who never seems wacky or spaced-out. He’s totally clear-eyed, and he’s as zealous as any religious believer I’ve ever seen. You might not believe in Sand’s vision, but it’s hard not to admire his unwavering sense of purpose.
Scully couldn’t be more different – he smiles and laughs a lot and the two buck teeth that point through the middle of his beard are completely disarming. Scully got out of the acid business before Sand, and he managed to have a career in computers. Scully’s psychedelic rap sheet made him a minor celebrity in Silicon Valley where the whole information revolution was dreamed up by American kids on acid, before they became computer pioneers like Daniel Kottke and Steve Jobs. Scully’s dedication to LSD seems to have been sincere enough, but he also came to see that other paths were available to him. Sand says Scully didn’t take enough acid.
Of course there is a dark side to this story and it’s full of the elements we often address between these pages: LSD made a huge cultural impact before 1967 when it was made illegal. Of course illegal manufacturing continued, but soon the marijuana and acid of the hippie era gave way to drugs like heroin, and soldiers were coming back from Vietnam with full blown addictions in a trend that looked a lot like the widespread opium problem in cities across the country today. In the aftermath of the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury was littered with homeless teenage runaways and mentally ill war vets with major chemical dependencies. These social and medical problems were misunderstood and dealt with through a punitive federal drug policy that laid the groundwork for both the contemporary war on drugs as well as America’s shameful policies of mass incarceration.
LSD isn’t an addictive drug like today’s opioids, and researchers are currently experimenting with it in hopes that its psychoactive qualities might actually help the victims of addiction. At the end of The Sunshine Makers, a title card announces that “Half a century after it was banned, scientific research into the therapeutic effects of LSD has started again.” Here comes the sun.
The Sunshine Makers is currently streaming on Netflix and other services.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.