The Source Family

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos

Hippies, drugs, free love, meditation, spiritual quests, and Los Angeles-based vegetarian restaurants. You’ll find all of that in The Source Family. For me, the movie was downright nostalgic.

No, I was never a member of Jim Baker’s “family,” called The Source and the subject of this narratively-driven documentary. But I lived in LA in the early ’70s–a young, long-haired vegetarian in love with almost every aspect of the hippy culture. I ate at Baker’s restaurant, The Source, many times, and worked for a year in another LA vege eatery, Natural Fudge. I hitchhiked a lot in those days and met all sorts of people. I’m amazed that I never even heard of this group. (If I had heard of them, I would not have joined. Even at that age, I knew enough not to put total faith in a guru.)

Baker was a World War II vet with a history of violence and a good track record in the restaurant business. He started The Source, a very successful vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip, in 1977. (Remember the scene near the end of Annie Hall where Alvie and Annie meet one last time at an outdoor restaurant? That was The Source, years after Baker had sold it.) He began experimenting with different religious traditions, and molded them into his own. Soon, he and his followers were living in a rented mansion and running the restaurant together.

You’d expect a documentary about an early 70s LA-based cult and hippy commune, centered around such a charismatic leader, to be an exposé–names like Charles Manson and Jim Jones come to mind. But The Source Family is a surprisingly the_sourcebalanced view of Baker’s “family.” Told almost entirely from the point of view of former commune members, the film paints a largely positive picture of early new age spirituality and anti-materialistic idealism. Decades after his death and the commune’s end, many of his followers still think of him as a holy man and refer to him as “father.”

Yet they, and the filmmakers, don’t hide his shortcomings. The hero worship went to his head–and to a less intellectual body part. Although his original rules for the group sanctified monogamous marriage, he took on multiple wives and put together a harem of very young, female admirers. Wille and Demopoulos don’t shy away from these negative character traits, or the disastrous decisions that left the community broke and despised in Hawaii.

Structured like a three-act narrative feature, The Source Family tells its story efficiently and engagingly. And musically–The Source had its own band, whose old recordings drive the movie’s soundtrack. If you’re interested in alternative lifestyles or new religions, or are just nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius, you’ll want to catch this one.

When I saw this documentary at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, it was called simply The Source. You’ll find more about it at SFIFF Report: Vegetarian Restaurants, Hippy Communes, and The Source. It opens Friday at the Roxie.