The Source Family
Opens Fri., May 3 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 98 minutes.
We know how this story is supposed to end, and yet we’re wrong about that. The Source Family was an early-’70s cult that followed its charismatic leader from L.A. to Hawaii, where death and diaspora followed. Yet The Source Family turns out to be an oddly affirmative and sympathetic portrait of the disciples, if not the guru, during an era when many were casting about for alternative forms of spirituality. (Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Willie directed the film.) Based on an insider’s prior written account, the doc benefits from fantastically evocative period stills, home movies, and audio recordings of Yod (aka Yahowa, aka Jim Baker), a World War II hero and restaurant entrepreneur. His health-food eatery The Source, which featured the hottest waitresses on the Sunset Strip (cult members all), catered to celebrities and inspired jokes in Annie Hall and on Saturday Night Live. Yod was himself a celebrity: tall, handsome, copiously bearded, Jesus-looking, dressed in white flowing robes. He also took 14 wives from among his gorgeous young flock—but it was the ’70s, right? Rock stars will have their due.
Yod was no Charles Manson or Jim Jones, yet those associations have dogged him—and his acolytes—in life and legacy. Those gray-haired seekers now share mixed recollections of Father Yod. “I know this sounds insane,” says one. “It was truly utopia,” says another. “We thought he was God,” another chimes in. “All these fantastic orgies? No, it wasn’t that at all,” insists another. (Their cult names are too silly to type out, so I won’t.)
You have to place the Source Family in its Nixon/Vietnam-era context. Health food and yoga were exciting and new. “Sex magic” seemed like a good idea at the time. Yod was unquestionably a dirty old man, a power-mad user, but his 140-odd followers remained loyal. He never killed anyone. There was no violence. Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, and Steve McQueen ate in his restaurant. And Yod’s worshippers faithfully documented him right up to his Icarus-like demise. Their archives—and the film’s soundtrack—include psychedelic musical improv sessions now lauded by Devendra Banhart, Rick Rubin, and Billy Corgan. Neo-hippie revivalism is today a marketable trend, but Yod’s old disciples maintain a stubborn dignity outside of fashion and time.
How many today eat organic and do yoga? How many live off the grid? The Source Family followers are both ridiculous and timely. “I don’t regret any of it,” says one. “Would I do it again? No way.”