Dr. Bronner, he of the popular organic soap with the messianic label, is something of a household word. But few could anticipate the strange saga the good doctor and his brood, encompassing the Holocaust, escape from a mental institution, counterculture idolatry, systematic child neglect, cosmic religiosity and an Off Off Broadway show. Tyro helmer Sara Lamm satisfyingly stitches together the family soap opera into a comfortable crazy quilt without sacrificing its unique, oddly topical edge. Intriguing docu, which opened June 29 at Gotham’s Cinema Village before venturing further afield, should wash well with the uninitiated and faithful users alike.
A Jew who emigrated from Germany in 1929, Emanuel Bronner continued the family craft of soap-making in America, where he traveled around preaching the “Moral ABCs” of his “All-One-God-Faith.” Institutionalized and given shock treatments in an Illinois mental hospital, Bronner eventually escaped to California, where he combined his two callings by printing his teachings on every bottle of his increasingly popular, multipurpose organic peppermint soap.
Lamm cleverly repurposes those bottle labels as screen borders, with various individuals espousing their fondness for the product (a staple of every self-respecting commune in the ’60s and still a favorite with those who tend to embrace an alternative lifestyle). Some read from the label’s eclectic texts, which reference Hillel, Einstein and Mark Spitz in a paean to clean living and a plea to unite all inhabitants of spaceship Earth.
In its presentation of Bronner himself (who died in 1997), docu benefits from a wealth of archival materials that accumulated around the self-styled doctor as counterculture icon — homemovies, interviews with the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, even clips from the 1971 feature “Rainbow Bridge.” Bremmer’s German accent, shrill delivery and incoherent rants were perhaps best appreciated by a generation that believed in nonverbal communication.
But it is through his son Ralph that Bronner’s message, in its kinder, gentler form, is most effectively delivered. Though a victim of his father’s almost proud neglect of his progeny (to better carry out his mission, Bronner entrusted his kids to often abusive orphanages and foster homes), Ralph travels America dispensing soap, $50 bills and hugs. Indeed, Lamm opens her film with a scene in which Ralph, in New York to perform a folksy one-man show about his legendary dad, chats up a supremely disinterested newsstand girl and soon has her almost in tears, hugging him fiercely.
Similar acts of random kindness are captured throughout the docu, as Ralph engages a man in a cemetery who turns out to have known his father and befriends a skateboarding pianist who is caring for a dying girlfriend.
A rabid anticommunist (Lamm treats viewers to the FBI records of his numerous letters to the government, consigned to the “nut file”), Bronner preached instead a form of compassionate capitalism, which now rules the daily workings of the company, run by the children of Bronner’s other son, Jim. Taking its mad-genius founder’s teachings to heart, the family-owned business gives away 70% of its net profits, actively pioneers recyclable containers at all levels of production, and allows none of the Bronners’ exec salaries to exceed five times what the lowest-paid employee earns.
Tech credits are creditable, Pierre de Gaillande’s jaunty score setting the tone for docu’s warts-and-all enjoyment of its extraordinary subjects.