Bearded dudes, long-haired chicks, yoga, health food, loud guitars, plenty of dope — you'd be forgiven for thinking The Source Family is a documentary about East Nashville. But this is a different moment in youth culture, a moment when the American mystic tradition collided head on with Eastern religions and the hedonist gospel of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. This is a moment when a postmodern pastiche of spirituality was the vanguard rather than the norm, when square modes of thought were being shucked off, when American youth culture briefly looked like it was going to radicalize the mainstream. This is the moment that Maria Demopoulous and Jodi Wille's amazing account preserves, from early innocence to eventual corruption.
Cinephiles will immediately recognize The Source, the iconic Sunset Strip health food restaurant that served as both headquarters and primary income source for Father Yod (government name: Jim Baker) and his followers. The Source was a Swinging '60s Hollywood hot spot that morphed into a reliable hippie joke for the wiseguy '70s — think Woody Allen's "plate of mashed yeast" in Annie Hall, or the waitress who "auditions" for Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Its founders, The Source Family, were the quintessential hippie cult, archetypal New Agers whose pursuit of enlightenment was both easily mocked and enviously naïve — the optimistic far extreme of the peace-and-love spectrum.
Compiled from the extensive photo, film and audio collection of Family archivist Isis the Aquarian — including you-gotta-hear-this recordings of Ya Ho Wa 13, the Family's legendary free-psych house band — The Source Family balances nostalgia and skepticism, looking back at an idealistic time with affection but an honest eye for the darkness that bubbles under the surface of any would-be utopia. The epic story the movie tells is of Boomers lost in the wilderness, wandering postwar America looking for answers that couldn't be found in the traditions of Western society. It was a time of upheaval, and The Source Family captures the humanity, the conflict and confusion, that pushes lost souls to embrace the machinations of a self-anointed prophet — in this case, a former "America's strongest boy," judo champion and confessed killer.
Far from a recruitment video, The Source Family deals forthrightly with the descent of Father Yod from spiritual leader to creepy polygamist. Yod's "lust trip" would be The Family's undoing, his chimerical experiment unraveled by earthly desires and unscrupulous indulgence of his own whims. Framed as an egalitarian venture but run in patriarchal pursuit of poon, The Family encapsulated all the seeming impossibilities of free love — especially the inequity that arises when people steer that philosophy and its participants towards their own selfish ends.
But The Source Family story is no epic bummer. Nobody drinks the Kool Aid; nobody finger-paints with the blood of young starlets. Despite the morally and ethically dubious space Yod and The Family inhabited as the collective wound down, there is very little regret in evidence. The interviewees, all approaching retirement age now, come across as functional (albeit kinda crunchy) adults rather than acid-casualty stereotypes.
For all the movie's faith in the ideals of The Source Family's founding and the beliefs of its founder, directors Demopoulos and Wille never ignore the derangement that ensues when you appoint a mere mortal to godlike status. The Source Family paints a loving portrait of youthful idealism without ignoring the ugliness at its fringes.