Over 30 minutes of the historical/ musical/ spiritual documentary “The Source Family” pass before anybody uses the word “cult.” There’s no need to say it aloud. From the opening credits — a lingering close-up of a black-and-white photograph of a bearded fellow with long white hair while a singer croons “You are Jesus” — well, we figure it out.
For the followers of a guy who went by the names Jim Baker, Father Yod and YaHoWha, “cult” seems a given.
But “The Source Family” isn’t your typical film about cults. Baker was a decorated World War II vet, a muscular health food buff who killed a couple of men with his bare hands before finding his way into Eastern Mysticism along with some of his Beat Generation peers.
The film captures, in more detail than is probably necessary, Baker’s journey from mystic traveler to cult leader. And of all the long, strange trips of the late ’60s, early ’70s, none was stranger.
Baker parlayed a career as a Hollywood health food restaurateur into a following of the young, the beautiful and the lost who wandered into The Source — his Sunset Strip eating establishment.
Forty years later, many of his former followers, members of his 30-40 person commune, still speak of their time with him with reverence and joy. Others you couldn’t really call “former,” as they speak of still “doing the work.”
A cult film that doesn’t by design condemn the cult is an unusual thing, and filmmakers Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille take us through a bygone era of souls lost in a confusing age of street protests, a ruinous war, drugs and “God is dead.” Baker, a well-read and charismatic man, comes off as typical of the gurus of that age — an American into health food before it was popular, a seeker who cherry-picked his favorite tenets of the various world religions and concocted a “Ten Commandments for the Age of Aquarius,” who got his own Rolls Royce for his wisdom.
In classic cult fashion, Baker gives his “children” new identities — Isis, Sunflower, Heaven, etc. They dress all in white, at least until he becomes fascinated with say, the Templars, and has them change their attire. They form a free-form folk-blues jam band whose albums are collector’s items. (Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins sings their praises.)
Father Yod preaches “You can do anything in life, so long as you’re kind.” So Baker seems benign, or more benign than most, until that inevitable moment when a “free love” cult becomes a polygamist commune for the benefit of the cult leader, when underage girls are married off to other cult members to keep the police from arresting them all for statutory rape.
The filmmakers keep a keening soundtrack of the cult band’s music underneath the interviews, the home movies and vast collections of photographs taken by The Source Family historian, Isis. They show newspaper clippings documenting Baker’s “strongest boy in America” childhood, his war heroics and his run-ins with the law.
The film uses snippets of “Alex in Wonderland,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Annie Hall” to capture the L.A. vibe of that time, the health food / utopian cult connection, and how funny it seemed to the culture at large.
And they share blunt testimonials from his older and wiser former disciples, as well as those who never got over the experience. Their memories use words like “miracle” and “It sounds insane, but …” in talking up this formative portion of their youth.
“The Source Family” touches on familiar themes of young people’s need to belong and the void that cults and cult leaders fill in their lives. The arc of the story won’t shock anybody who recalls the Beatles’ stages of dabbling in Eastern mysticism — infatuation and enthusiasm, then the “dirty old man” guru shows his true colors, hitting on hippie girls, and the jig is up.
But as Wille and Demopoulos play tape recordings of Baker’s lectures — he even affects a bit of an Indian accent, at times — “The Source Family” allows us to ponder the nature of “charisma” in a charismatic leader. And as we do, we understand why it’s not just delusional rationalization or nostalgia that has these 60somethings waxing eloquent about their few short years in Baker’s thrall. They got something out of the exchange — something, to a one, they would “never do again,” but an experience they don’t regret, no matter what.
THE SOURCE FAMILY
Cast: Members of The Source Family
Directed by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille. A Drag City release.
Running time: 1:38
MPAA rating: Unrated, with nudity and childbirth depicted, profanity and pot use