The lead for this movie review should focus on notions of embracing death as a part of life. The film “Dying to Know” brushes toward embracing death as a loving extension of life as a grand connectedness. Nope, can’t write it that way because … Timothy Leary.
Probably everyone who knows what the word psychedelic means knows who Timothy Leary was. Leary is more closely associated with the proliferation of mind-altering drugs than any other person you could name. “Dying to Know” details a great deal of this man’s life.
Mind you, Leary testified at a congressional hearing reiterating his committed belief that LSD and such chemicals are not meant to be used casually. He was keenly aware that as soon as it became a law enforcement issue, the drugs would be everywhere. He was a respected scientist who worked legally and published forthrightly at places like Berkeley and Harvard. He was also something of a visionary/revolutionary attention magnet.
Ever the self-promoter, Leary turned his time dying with cancer into one more round of media coverage. He wanted, for himself and others, to appreciate death as a teacher and cancer as something to befriend. The film might have better explored what Leary considered the tough part of dying: how pain can debilitate consciousness.
The subtitle of the documentary, “Ram Dass & Timothy Leary,” refers to Richard Alpert. Alpert traded in his science-with-psychedelics association with Leary and rediscovered himself as Ram Dass, a spiritual guru most famous for the book, “Be Here Now.” Leary had dissed Dass after their partnership dissolved at the end of the 60s. In the mid-90s, the dying Leary reached out to his former friend and colleague. He knew the soulful Dass would know better than anyone how to be here since then.
See “Dying to Know” for a reflective context, even though its allure hinges so clearly on the man famously footnoted for saying “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” The film’s celebrity lens diffracts what might have been a richer examination at how dying is part of living, but it still sheds good light.