Great stories don’t always make for great documentaries, although it’s easy to confuse the two. (Case in point: last year’s Searching For Sugar Man.) As doc protagonists go, it’s hard to beat The Source Family’s James Baker, also known as Father Yod and YaHoWha, a natural-foods entrepreneur and petty thief who became the leader of the titular hippie cult. And co-director Jodi Wille, who edited the 2007 memoir by the Source Family’s Isis Aquarian (a.k.a. Charlene Peters), had no trouble with access, interviewing dozens of former commune members as well as Baker’s childhood friends and business associates. But watching the movie is like riffling through an author’s index cards: It’s all detail and no big picture.
The details, to be sure, are jaw-dropping. Take Baker, a World War II veteran who, at the age of 12, was named “America’s Strongest Boy.” He established pioneering health-food restaurants like the Aware Inn with funds procured from bank robberies; he was also a judo champion who killed two men with his bare hands. By the ’60s, Baker had become a millionaire, and his Source Restaurant on the Sunset Strip had become a beacon for freaks and heads nationwide. (It’s also where Alvy Singer orders his “plate of mashed yeast” in Annie Hall.) While the Sources’ upstairs loft served as a front office for Baker’s burgeoning spiritual movement, the downstairs restaurant served “hi-protein” salads to John Lennon and Steve McQueen, becoming at one point the most profitable restaurant per square foot in the country. (That the staff was composed entirely of Source Family members no doubt helped keep costs down.)
Baker died in a hang-gliding accident in 1975, but his former followers, with names like Electricity, Omne, and Makushla, are legion. (Wille only identifies them by their Source Family names, and doesn’t make clear how many still believe what they did then.) Baker and his followers’ trajectory is a familiar one: Older guru picks up tricks from faddish spiritualists like Swami Satchidananda and Yogi Bhajan. (The latter’s fleet of Rolls-Royces may have served as partial inspiration). Said guru convenes a flock of wayward souls, many still in their teens, and eventually succumbs to his own myth, taking multiple wives—several underage—and whisking his followers off to Kauai. Really, the sole distinctive element of the Source Family story is the fact that the group churned out several dozen albums’ worth of fractured psychedelic rock, which the Chicago indie label Drag City will be releasing along with the film. (Don’t hold it against the music that Billy Corgan shows up in a stupid hat to sing its praises.) Wille slathers the film end to end with Source Family tracks, in an apparent attempt to compensate for the movie’s lack of a solid structure, but the result is like having a radio playing in your ear when you’re trying to read.