I first became aware of the Source Family by way of the numerous and pretty excellent psychedelic records that several family members put out under various names over the course of a couple decades. It wasn’t until later when I discovered the less seemly, more cult-like aspects of this band of misfits and outcasts who also happened to run the first health food restaurant in America. At one point, the spot was considered the most profitable food service establishment per square foot in the Western World (for a while it was estimated to be grossing $10,000 a day). The Source, with its at-the-time unheard of vegetarian menu consisting mainly of salads and soybean curd-based dishes, became a fairly popular hangout on the Sunset Strip, attracting all kinds of celebrities throughout the 1970s, which supplied the Family with enough money to carry out an idyllic life in huge houses in L.A. The Source Family is about as exhaustive a document on this unique and uniquely American cult/family as can be imagined.
James Edward Baker was born in Cincinnati in 1922. An early American expert in Jujitsu and, according to his followers, a millionaire a couple times over, he moved to California in the late 1950s and started hanging out with a group of beats called the Nature Boys. These young artists were principally concerned with maintaining a strict vegetarian diet and attempting to adhere to the inherent laws of Nature, whatever the hell those are. Somewhere along the line, he changed his name to Father Yod and things got weird. After studying with Yogi Bhajan, Yod was struck with a singular insight and eventually formed his own religion because of it. Drawing upon the choicest mystical bits of several world religions, Yod created a belief structure around natural foods, plenty of sex, and ritual use of marijuana. It wasn’t surprising at all when he attracted a whole bunch of beautiful, vibrant young people and started his own commune.
The spirituality of the Source Family was about as frugal as their attitudes toward natural food and the environment, existing as a kind of hodgepodge repurposing of particularly freeing ideologies coupled with a draconian insistence on obedience to Father Yod. Using the enormous amount of footage that Isis Aquarian shot over the course of her time with the Family, this film offers an unprecedented look into the lives of these zealous and chemically altered people. The Source Family attracted a wide array of creative and passionate people, disaffected by a whole bunch of things in society, but mainly by an overpowering sense that mainstream culture was based upon a series of contradictions, and living in that culture was untenable if one wanted to live authentically. Looking at these energetic kids as they played house in a mansion in L.A. is eerie, and you get the sense it’s only a matter of time until things start to get all Jonestown-y.
The façade of authentic and meaningful living that Father Yod had successfully maintained for years started to crumble when he decided to completely reverse a fairly central tenet of his family’s religion, and this constitutes the most compelling segment of the documentary. From the Family’s inception, Father Yod had insisted that a man was meant to be with one woman, that this was the natural order of things (and also implied the woman as being a kind of possession of the man, for what it’s worth). At some point down the line, he decided he wanted more than one wife, and so he established a coterie of barely legal or entirely illegal women in the Family that would live as his wives. Eventually shunned by their benefactors in California, the Family moved West to Hawaii, and things began to steadily degrade from there. Interviews with the Family diaspora are particularly heartrending — you get the sense these folks are still torn about the whole thing.
Family is kind of a weird thing to begin with, and it becomes even weirder when it’s something that you willingly choose, and The Source Family excels in its ability to drive this point home. The creepiest thing to me about cults has always been the way they adopt the necessarily exclusive and self-segregating nature of family and play it out to its logical end. Awesome psych records aside, The Source Family got dark once these young kids realized it really wasn’t an option for them to leave and expect to keep in touch with those they’d spent their most formative moments with. The records were pretty rad, though.