It's hard to pick up a bottle of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, the hippie-approved wonder-product with the obscenely sensual all-around tingle, and not wonder about the story behind the label's bizarre ranting about the "Moral ABC's," "All-One-God-Faith," and "Spaceship Earth." How did the ravings of an apparent lunatic end up dominating the packaging of such a terrific, cultishly adored product? Who is this eccentric Dr. Bronner and where did his homemade philosophy concerning Halley's Comet, Mark Spitz, and Albert Einstein come from?
The sloppy but fascinating documentary Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox provides answers, albeit in a rambling and digressive fashion. Emanuel H. Bronner was the scion of a Jewish soap-making family whose stern, authoritarian father perished in a concentration camp. Bronner settled in the United States, but his eccentric beliefs landed him in an Illinois mental hospital, where he underwent shock treatment before escaping and eventually making his name as a socially conscious, eco-friendly purveyor of soap products bearing his name and loopy philosophical musings.
Bronner's mad bid to save the world often came at the expense of his family. He married several times and his children did long stints in orphanages. With his gaunt face, skinny body, dark glasses, and thick accent, Bronner's persona suggested Dr. Strangelove reborn as a crazed utopian. But Soapbox is equally concerned with the more unassuming figure of the doctor's son Ralph, a sweet-natured mensch who proudly carries on his father's humanistic legacy despite suffering parental abandonment in his traumatic youth. Like the recent Ramones documentary End Of The Century, Soapbox poignantly illustrates how great good can come out of almost inconceivable pain. Singing hobo songs to mentally challenged orphans and doling out money, free bottles of soap, and hugs, Ralph is nearly as unforgettable as his iconic father, albeit in a much more gentle fashion. He's a chatterbox evangelist for both his father's ideas and basic human decency. It's a measure of the film's strange power that it never feels like a feature-length infomercial for its subject, though it doesn't entirely avoid boosterism for the only soap on the market intent on cleaning bodies and opening minds.
Key features: A commentary from director Sara Lamm joins an updated interview with David Bronner and a Fair Trade Olive Oil video, among other curiosities.