Family Guy

Naomi Fry on The Source Family

Source Family women pose for a promotional photo for the Ya Ho Wa 13 record release, Los Angeles, 1973. Photo courtesy Isis Aquarian archives.

MARIA DEMOPOULOS AND JODI WILLE’S The Source Family opens with an extended close-up of Jim Baker (aka Father Yod, aka YaHoWha), founder of the early-1970s Los Angeles–based cult the Source Family. Baker’s piercing eyes, craggily handsome face, and abundant gray beard peg him as a cross between a Maharishi-like sage and a rugged, post-Aquarian cocksman à la Kris Kristofferson. This impression is only strengthened when the movie segues into footage of Baker, or “Father”—as many of his former devotees interviewed in the film still call him—as he steps out of a white Rolls Royce, resplendent in biblical white robes and a heavy silver medallion, a cohort of comely young women in flowing gowns behind him. As one of the Source Family’s onetime members, speaking of the cult, opines in voice-over, “It was clearly the most interesting game in town.”

Indeed. Yod and his crew are the sort of extreme characters, operating in an extreme situation, that are a documentary filmmaker’s dream, and The Source Family is a useful watch if only as a means of acquainting oneself with the wild, weird story of that group’s ascent. Baker, the wealthy proprietor of a number of Hollywood eateries, opened the vegetarian restaurant the Source on Sunset Boulevard in 1969. The place quickly drew celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Joni Mitchell, and Steve McQueen and, at one time, according to one of Baker’s followers, generated “more money per square foot than any restaurant in the country.” Along with his nineteen-year-old wife Robin (“Mother Ah-Om”), the nearly fifty-year-old Baker, now “Father Yod,” began attracting a group of young “seekers” to the restaurant. They eventually moved in with him, first to one mansion and then another, in the Hollywood Hills, where they all lived together as a family—which at the height of the cult’s popularity numbered over a hundred. It’s unclear to me whether the Source Family’s tenets were originally as vague as the film presents them, but they seem to have included a variety of methods geared toward both purification and pleasure: vegetarianism, meditation, forms of tantric sex, and, of course, ritualistic smoking of “the sacred herb.”

The documentary follows the Source Family’s arc to its end, which came not long after the group’s relocation to Hawaii and Father Yod’s 1975 death in a hang-gliding accident. Along the way, there are some odd, socioculturally fascinating moments, such as footage of the Family’s psych band (variously named Father Yod and the Spirit of ’76 and the Ya Ho Wha 13) performing in 1973 in front of some apparently flummoxed teens at Beverly Hills High School. But for the most part, the film seems less interested in drawing deeper connections between the Family and the culture from which it emerged (and on which it exerted its influence) and more in concentrating on the exceptionality of the Family’s internal structure—especially on Baker’s paternal and sexual magnetism, which the movie emphasizes as the cult’s central animating mechanism.

This is too bad, because the Source Family’s story seems significant beyond its ability to tell us something about a particular set of relationships. One of the more intriguing (if superficially examined) elements of The Source Family is the present-day interviews with some of the Family’s former members, a fair number of whom still seem generally sympathetic to the community’s basic principles. And while there’s certainly a smattering of off-the-grid apocalyptic thinkers and recluses in the bunch, most interesting are the more conventional interview subjects: the life coaches and health-food store owners and forward-thinking tech CEOs and Internet-based spirituality advisors, among them a man who, while still presenting himself as “Orbit” (his Source Family name), has traded in his white robes for a yellow Livestrong bracelet.

The Source Family could have provided us—and unfortunately doesn’t—with a clearer understanding of those cusp moments between eras. Not just the point at which late-’60s hippie culture infiltrated straight culture deeply enough that a successful businessman became a spiritual leader and, eventually, a god to a group of people, but also that moment’s shift into the place we find ourselves today—where New Age has been mainstreamed, spiritual leaders are often businessmen, and spirituality itself is a business.

The Source Family has its New York theatrical premiere at the IFC Center on May 1.