If there were a picture of God in the English dictionary it would probably look like Jim Baker, a.k.a. Father Yod, a.k.a. YaHoWha. With his white mane, vast beard, and amiable and incomprehensible gaze, the founder of the ’70s spiritual commune known as the Source Family looks like someone who could, as one follower insists, have lightning bolts come out of his ears. He epitomizes the spiritual mountebank, a readily parodied exploiter of people in need. But in Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille’s artfully executed and engrossing documentary, “The Source Family,” he can also seem like the real thing, a teacher and a transformer of souls.
As one point in his favor, he never hid his background, sharing his checkered past with his followers. He was a veteran, a martial arts expert, and a successful entrepreneur who opened the country’s first health food restaurant, The Source, which was a favorite of celebrities ranging from Steve McQueen to John Lennon. But he also had a volatile temperament, a taste for excess, and a penchant for violence; he might have robbed banks and he killed at least one man with his bare hands.
Then he met his own guru, and decided to change. A true entrepreneur, he figured he could do the guru thing better, and with his restaurant as a base, built up a following, an army of bearded men and beautiful women waiting on tables, living a high-end communal life in a Hollywood Hills mansion, and roaming the Sunset Strip like a visitation from Middle-earth. Until the inevitable hubris set in, Yod and the Source Family spread a message of peace, love, transcendence, and a healthy diet.
Their philosophy was motley, pieced together from various creeds, Eastern and Western. More compelling than the message was the medium himself. Though seen only in the stills and home movies shot by Isis Aquarius, one of Baker’s 14 wives and the official family historian (also one of the film’s producers), he exudes charisma and authority. His disembodied voice, heard in recordings, ingratiates and intimidates. Interviewed years after Baker’s bizarre 1976 demise, former members still speak of him with awe; most are grateful for the experience and perhaps the better for it.
Though attuned to Baker’s absurdities and foibles, the film suggests that he, unlike the near contemporaneous Charles Manson, drew mostly on the positive energy of that volatile time. The film’s style, consisting of talking-head interviews and a groovier version of Ken Burns-like montages of period footage, underscores the film’s sympathy with its subject. The soundtrack adds to the seductiveness; taken from the dozens of albums made by Yod and the Source Family band, the music is hypnotic and haunting, something you might hear in the fourth hour of a Grateful Dead concert. More than just a footnote to a wayward period of cultural history, “The Source Family” portrays an American type, the transcendent charlatan, a latter-day Gatsby, not of material riches but of the soul.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.