Seminal New Age consciousness guru Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, is captured with appropriate gentle insight in Mickey Lemle’s “Ram Dass: Fierce Grace.” Less a full investigation of the subject’s life and ideas than an appreciation of his current status as a stroke-impaired elder statesman of soul matters, feature has some plodding sections and lacks critical perspective. Yet pic’s unhurried, empathetic style complements Dass’ own, and this new work by the director of “Compassion in Exile: The Story of the 14th Dalai Lama” will be well received wherever there are significant pockets of aging counterculturalists and spiritual seekers. (Appropriately, first theatrical stops are in San Francisco and Marin County.) Others will no doubt flock to it later on in ancillary formats.
In 1997 the 65-year-old Dass, author of popular 1971 tome “Be Here Now,” suffered a near-fatal stroke that left him partly paralyzed and afflicted by speech-impairing aphasia. His recovery since has been onerously slow. But what troubled him most immediately was his surprise loss of faith in the spiritual beliefs he’d espoused for decades.
In the long run, he was humbled and strengthened, and he refocused his teachings (particularly via the delayed book “Still Here”) on coping with the body’s unpredictable aging process. He now considers “being stroked” a “worthy adversary to my spiritual practice” that ironically rendered him “more at peace than I’ve ever been.”
Docu doesn’t really shed much light for neophytes on Dass’ higher-consciousness concepts — a nondenominational canon derived largely from various Eastern mysticisms and Western secular-humanist principals — preferring instead to view them in specialized practice. Most notable such segs show an Ashland, Ore., couple reading aloud a letter he’d sent that provided much comfort after their adolescent daughter was murdered, and Dass counseling a young woman whose environmental-activist boyfriend was assassinated in Colombia.
By far most compelling material here, however, is midsection chronicling the journey of Dass/Alpert from pampered youngest scion of a prominent Boston Jewish family to America’s leading New Age torchbearer. An academic high-achiever, he promoted his interest in psychological research straight into a tenured professorship at Harvard. But the arrival of fellow instructor Timothy Leary in 1961 embroiled Alpert in the former’s controversial advocacy of psychedelic-chemical experimentation. Two years later, these activities led to both men’s dismissals.
After a while, Alpert realized the short-term ups and downs of psychedelic tripdom were too transient, so in 1967 he packed off to India. There he met his great spiritual teacher, the late Maharaj’ji Neem Karoli Baba, and a year after that transformative experience returned to the States as Ram Dass.
He set about introducing the nation’s then highly receptive youth to yoga, meditation, chanting and Zen Buddhist concepts. Publication of “Be Here Now” (now in its 37th printing) widened his audience enormously, as did numerous other volumes.
Wealth of archival footage (dating back to the Alpert clan’s 1930s home movies) makes this backstory — which could easily have been stretched to feature length on its own — fascinating. On minus side, despite various commentators here (including diehard counterculture types like Wavy Gravy), there’s virtually no acknowledgement that Dass ever suffered detractors or skeptics throughout his career, as he most certainly did.
Pace occasionally slows to a crawl, especially in pic’s last reel, but overall effect is engaging and unpretentious. Tech package is well-handled. Musical choices are apt, ranging from tabla-based instrumentals to George Harrison’s “Be Here Now” song and a version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” by the Hampton String Quartet.