Ram Dass: Fierce Grace
Richard Alpert grew up on the New Hampshire country estate of his father, a prominent corporate attorney who also served as president of the New York-New Haven railroad. Alpert followed an ambitious path through the scholarly world, landing in the psychology department of Harvard in the early '60s and joining his colleague Timothy Leary on the journey of mind expansion through psychedelic drugs. After Alpert was dismissed from the university, he traveled to India and became heavily involved with the meditative practices of Hindus and Buddhists. His studies led him to change his name to Ram Dass, write the best-selling 1971 self-help book Be Here Now, and spend the next 30-plus years as a spiritual healer and guru to millions. Mickey Lemle's documentary Ram Dass: Fierce Grace catches up to its subject four years after Dass experienced a massive stroke that paralyzed the right half of his body, limited his ability to express himself, and stymied his plans to host a nationwide radio talk show. The film recounts Dass' biography through friends and family members' reminiscences and archival footage of his days of hippie communal living. It shows the impaired but still warm and contemplative Dass finishing Still Here (his book about aging and dying) and meeting with fans to help them through their personal problems. Perhaps unintentionally, Lemle's intercutting between the younger and older Dass makes connections that are provocative and deeply moving. In his prime, the guru inspired legions to move beyond drugs and into more spiritual highs, and he even earned the approval of his initially skeptical father, who respected the peace and understanding that Dass preached. But Dass' somewhat arrogant pedagogical style recalls the self-involved Harvard professor he once was, and when Lemle contrasts the footage from the early '70s with a slower-speaking Dass asking his physical therapist, "What do you do with people who insist on finishing your sentences?" the onset of humility is poignant. Lemle shows the aging spiritual leader moved to sobs by chanting, and by the story of an otherworldly encounter. The director even lets the film's penultimate scene end on a hug, with the huggers' microphones picking up their heartbeats. Ram Dass: Fierce Grace is an artful and thorough character study, and it illustrates one of its subject's conclusions: Healing is not about getting back to the way things were, but about learning to live with how they are.