DVD review

The Source Family

The Source Family

An enthralling look at Father Yod's hippy cult and the psychedelic rock they produced...

When we think of “cult bands”, we probably have in mind someone like Orange Juice or Pavement. Children Of The Sixth Root Race, The Spirit Of 76, and Yahowa 13, the utterly obscure early 1970s psychedelic/free rock groups led by a charismatic 50something who called himself Father Yod were different – they derived from within an actual cult, a Los Angeles “spiritual commune” of as many as 150 members, known as the Source Family.

The music, from slow freak rock ballads, to quasi-gospel anthems, to messianic psych jams, was improvised and recorded in the family’s $30,000 home studio, and is central to the evolution of this excellent documentary. Not only because it provides a great soundtrack to it, but because its quality has created a market for the film’s wider story. The record collectors discovered it first, and it has since taken on a new life in the era of file-sharing blogs. Where did the music come from? The Source Family doesn’t only provide an answer to that, it also casts its net wider and helps makes sense of the confluence of eastern philosophies, utopian dreams, adventurous rock music and psychedelic drugs that contributed to what we might call the “consciousness boom” of the 1960s and 1970s.

In this enterprise, directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille have been enormously aided by erstwhile Family members. Chief among these is a former Washington DC socialite called Charlene Peters, who became known as Isis Aquarian, and invented a role for herself within it as the Family’s archivist – taking the photographs, making the home movies, and recording the key “morning meditations” that provide the documentary verisimilitude within this enthralling film.

The other major component here is the interviews with former Family members about their experiences. How bad could any cult have been, we ask ourselves, that produced someone as assured and articulate as Magus Aquarian? Or as focused as Electricity Aquarian? These do not look like weak-minded victims of some bearded charismatic. In fact, we become just as interested in discovering what time has brought these people in the 40 years since their leader’s demise in a hang-gliding accident, as in the story of that leader himself.

That, however, is still one extraordinary story. Father Yod, (more often “Father” or “Yahowa”) was born Jim Baker. A handsome former serviceman and martial arts devotee, Baker was the kind of personality to fill a room, whatever size the room, and in the years after World War II, he set about a process of transforming and monetizing himself. He became a fitness entrepreneur, briefly a monk, the successful proprietor of vegetarian restaurants, a spiritual leader, rock singer, and – ultimately, in his own mind and those of his followers – a god. His philosophy for the Source Family, which evolved out of the morning meditation meetings at his hip LA vegetarian restaurant, The Source, was “Do anything you want – as long as you are kind.”

It doesn’t sound too controversial, does it? Part of the skill of The Source Family is the very way it makes a virtue of its moral relativism, acknowledging that in cults as in life, no-one is all good or all bad. Gradually however, the evidence mounts to depose “Father” from his throne. Baker’s policy of honesty in regard to his past life seems laudable enough, but it revealed a history of violence - the start-up capital for his restaurants, for example, was apparently provided by bank robberies he conducted; he had killed with a karate blow the husband of a TV actress with whom he became involved.

For all his professed love, meanwhile, “Father” could be heartless and completely without empathy. He had reinvented his life to the extent of abandoning a pre-Source wife and children; he then broke his new wife’s heart by entering into commune polygamy. He had sex with underage girls. Adherence to the Family code meant insisting that its members (and their children) refused qualified medical care and prescribed medicine. And so on.

And yet – without giving anything very much away – this is not predominantly a story of wrecked lives and abused trust. The views of the participants are accorded a great amount of respect here, and as such there’s a lingering suspicion that the film-makers have eased off the gas at a couple of points in the investigation to spare their feelings. Just how members were persuaded to liquidate and donate their personal wealth and property to the Family is only briefly alluded to. One might have expected a bit more about the “sexual magick” that the cult latterly attempted to unlock. Given that it was the jumping-off point for the whole commune, some more about the actual food would have been welcome.

Ultimately, though, The Source Family expands its remit beyond the specifics of one charismatic leader of one commune/cult to uncover and explore one of the chief ironies of the period. Namely, how come a generation that declared itself in open revolt against the values of its parents still readily submitted itself to quasi-family structures led by father figures, not many of whom, it turned out, could actually be trusted.
John Robinson

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Rating: 8 / 10

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