The Source Family documentary opens in selective cities throughout May. The DVD is set for a June 18 release and the soundtrack comes out May 21. Watch the trailer, below.
The Source Family: Directed By Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos (Drag City; 98 minutes) www.dragcity.com
The Sixties certainly were “strange days,” to borrow the Doors’ lyrics, in America as the Youth Rebellion flipped off the Establishment. However, as the sun set on the Summer of Love, the Woodstock Generation discovered that things weren’t always groovy. Many high school and college-aged kids wound up “very puzzled, confused and lost (causing them to) turn to intense forms of spiritual and religious practices,” according to social historian writer Derek Hall in the fascinating new documentary, The Source Family.
The titular family that is this documentary’s subject was a communal group (some might now call a cult) who explored these “intense spiritual, religious experiences.” This Los Angeles-based “family” came into being in the late Sixties by a tall ex-Marine turned restaurateur named Jim Baker, who opened The Source health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip. It quickly became a hip hang-out for celebrities and disaffected youths. Baker attracted a coterie of soul-searching followers, who were interested in his organic food, yoga classes and utopian views. Yes, only in Los Angeles, would a religious movement start in a health food restaurant.
Baker, who soon took the name Father Yod, brought his people together to live in a large communal house. With his “Age of Aquarius” ideals, he christened his family with names like Heaven Aquarian and Harvest Moon Aquarian.
One of the documentary’s strengths is its insiders’ recollections of Family life. The film is based on Isis Aquarian’s memoir/history of the Source Family (she is also the film’s associate producer) and Jodi Wille, who co-directed this film with Maria Demopoulos, also worked on the book. Despite the filmmakers’ close ties to the Family, the documentary offers a surprisingly clear-eyed look at the life with Father Yod.
Many of the interviewed former Source Family members (a majority still identified by their Aquarian names) certainly share their positive experiences of that time. These children of the Sixties, now graying sixty-somethings, talk about how the Family saved their lives. It is easy to see the appeal that the father figure Baker/Yod had with these young seekers. A big bear of a man with a long beard, he projected a Christ-like figure whose cosmic teachings included a fair share of sex, drugs and societal freedom.
Some interviewees admit, however, that the Family was far from perfect. One Source survivor named Magus reveals he left the group after he wasn’t allowed to give medicine to his sick infant son because that was against Family’s teachings. One shortcoming is that it would have been interesting to hear from children who were raised in the Source Family.
Several people do mention how things started to get “very far-out,” particularly after Yod took on a new name, Yahowha, and began thinking of himself in more God-like terms. He altered Family rules – like making it fine for people to have more than one lover. In fact, he had a “harem” of 13 young women. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes when his former wife Robin declares that he was just “a dirty old man on a lust trip.” It’s easy to see the hurt and betrayal she still feels as she speaks, even as she holds a photograph of him.
The documentary benefits from the wealth of extensive amount of film that the Source Family shot of their world. Instead of just relying on period stock footage, these “home movies” provide a strong visual sense of what this life was like. Especially memorable is the footage of Yahowha and his rock band, the Yahowha 13, performing at a couple of upscale Los Angeles high schools in the early Seventies. The shows are part psychedelic rock jams and part recruitment efforts (and something that no school official would allow on their grounds today).
By the mid-Seventies, the Source Family’s life turned less idyllic. They were forced to live into a smaller house and were frequently hassled by L.A. officials. After talking of a coming Armageddon, Yod/Yahowha sold his restaurant and moved his followers to Hawaii, but they weren’t welcomed there either. Unlike Jim Jones, however, Yod/Yahowha didn’t lead his people to death. Instead, he seemingly brought upon his own death in a semi-mystical fashion by hang-gliding – with no prior experience – off of a high cliff and dying soon afterwards from his injuries. The Source Family disbanded a few years later and probably would have remained a Sixties footnote were it not for the series of albums that they self-released over the years that attracted a large cult following.
Drag City, which is releasing the documentary, also is putting out a soundtrack album. This compilation offers a cross-section of Family music, from tunes that suggest a slightly stoned take on Jesus Christ Superstar-like theatrical pop (“How Long In Time” and “Godmen”) to wild, psychedelic freak-outs jams (“Penetration” and “To the Principles for the Children”). Because it draws upon songs from different albums (and several tracks are shortened excerpts), this soundtrack doesn’t deliver the full impact of the group’s raw, trippy sound that has attracted psych-rock fans and freak folk followers. It does, however, provide a glimpse info this free-form rock ‘n’ roll that came out of this free-form experiment in living.