He’s probably the most popular singer of kirtan, Indian devotional music that involves chanting accompanied by harmonium, violin, and tambourine. Nominated for a Grammy in 2012, Krishna Das — KD to his nearest and dearest — is a modest and appealing 66-year-old performer whose life was transformed back in 1970 by the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, better known as Maharaji.
In “One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das,” first-time feature director Jeremy Frindel, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, creates an engaging look at the era of enlightenment-seeking when young, shaggy-haired Americans experimented with LSD and traveled to India seeking answers. Two such seekers were Krishna Das, born Jeffrey Kagel on Long Island, and his friend Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert.
Inspired by the profound simplicity he saw in Maharaji’s teachings, Kagel abandoned his rock ’n’ roll band (which later became Blue Oyster Cult) and took on the name Krishna Das. The move transformed his life, though it did not guarantee eternal happiness. When Maharaji died in 1973, Krishna Das was grief-stricken and lost, which led to severe depression and crack addiction. In the mid-1990s, he found his way back to India and reconnected with the teachings of Maharaji. It was then that Krishna Das devoted himself to singing and performing as a kind of sacred communion between himself and the audience and, by extension, with his spiritual guide.
It sounds very new agey, and it is, but Krishna Das is so likable that he transcends stereotyping and the impulse to smirk. Footage of his visits to India offers important historical and visual context. The concert footage, which Frindel relies on a little too much, does allow the viewer to see the kind of effect Krishna Das has on his adoring fans and why he’s so popular. You can see it in their blissed out faces and waving hands; his music could be gospel or Christian spirituals. Talking heads, including Ram Dass, record producer Rick Rubin, Dr. Larry Brilliant of the Seva Foundation, and writer Dan Goleman, who traveled with Krishna Das to India in 1970, explain that when KD first started performing and recording, yoga and meditation were not the common practices they are now. The culture caught up with him.
But the film might have been better served if it spent more time with the thoughtful, down-to-earth KD. There is a scene with his band on their tour bus and interviews with his adult daughter, but we don’t get to see enough of the self-doubt and struggle that he talks about on camera. When you’ve got a star, let him be the star.