Review: ‘The Source Family’ Sheds (Some) Light on the Most Productive Cult of the Seventies

By  · Published on May 4th, 2013

Editor’s note: The Source Family is now in limited release, so go ahead and get hip to Kate’s SXSW review of the film, originally published on March 14, 2012.

While some people might chuckle at being informed that they are a part of a group of “specially chosen people,” there will always be a few that perk up with such words, whose eyes go wide, and who are eager to get on board with like-minded people. You know, like cult members. Co-directors Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos chronicle just such a cult and just such a people in The Source Family, a documentary about the group of people known as the Source Family who, thanks to their leader Jim Baker, “transformed sex, drugs, and rock n roll” into a genuine movement (at least in their eyes).

The film documents Baker and the Source’s rise to (relative) power and prominence in seventies-era Los Angeles. Baker got his roots in the city through his profession as a restaurateur and, after opening a number of eateries; he finally came up with The Source Restaurant – one of the first health food restaurants in the country. Baker’s restaurant served as ground zero for health nuts, wayward children, and movie stars and, combined with Baker’s well-known charisma, it was the perfect breeding ground for a cult with a readymade leader.

Baker gathered a group of willing followers to comprise the Source Family, using them to work in his restaurant, live under his rule (he had his own Ten Commandments), and form a well-respected psychedelic rock band (whose music is used for the film’s soundtrack, a somewhat obvious move that works frighteningly well). For a few years, the Family was happy and productive, with its ranks ever-growing and Baker (who came to be known as “Father Yod”) holding serious sway over his followers. Yet, as seems to be the modus operandi of many cult leaders, Baker eventually took it upon himself to break his own commandments in pursuit of more personal pleasures. Baker’s backpedaling led to a number of followers jumping ship, followers who suddenly found themselves questioning their own levels of respect and trust. Eventually, the Source pulled up their stakes and moved to Hawaii, where things ended up getting even more weird and even more ill-fated.

Wille and Demopoulos have assembled an impressive number of interviews, photographs, and archival material relating to the Source and their history, and it’s been put together in an engaging and relatively seamless manner. However, Baker’s history before both Los Angeles and the Source is frighteningly slim, and while Wille and Demopoulos don’t gloss over his earlier life, the film doesn’t illuminate who Baker was and why that made him who he eventually became. The bits we do know that are peppered in – he was a Marine, he was convicted of two murders, he allegedly robbed banks to get start-up funds, and he had two families before the Source – are just as enthralling as what is developed on the screen, and surely deserving of more time and attention.

The Source Family is frequently engaging and amusing, and it provides a very watchable slice of life look at Jim Baker and the Source Family. But despite its meticulous collection of both new and archival material, it doesn’t provide some essential grounding – we’re never sure of just who Jim Baker was and how that made him who he became, and we’re never quite aware of the impact that the Source had on the era it seemed to so embody.

The Upside: Solid slice of life documentary about an inherently interesting group of people and their complicated history; well-crafted combination of new and old material.

The Downside: Lack of backstory and context deflate the film.

On the Side: When the film first bowed at SXSW 2012, it was just called The Source, which definitely sounds a bit like a bad horror film.