The Spirit Level


Survivors of illness often emphasize the redemptive qualities of their ordeals, which as a coping technique is hard to fault. But compressing them into inspirational packages—through years of reflection and rewrites—sometimes obscures their raw scope. Such is not the case with Mickey Lemle’s Ram Dass Fierce Grace, a documentary about the baby-boomer guru’s recovery from a massive 1997 stroke: The attack’s lingering physical and emotional effects on Ram Dass are plain from the moment he first addresses Lemle’s inquiring camera. It’s an unnervingly naked display.

For the bulk of its running time, Ram Dass Fierce Grace follows the daily routine of the onetime scholar turned spirit guide as he undergoes various treatments, attends speaking gigs, and greets and counsels followers and fans. For the uninitiated, Lemle also includes a Ram Dass primer in the film’s longish middle section, which includes interviews with colleagues, family members, converts, and ’60s figureheads. (Wavy Gravy makes an obligatory appearance.)

Born Richard Alpert to a wealthy and well-connected Boston family, Ram Dass was a research psychologist and tenure-track Harvard professor when he crossed paths with academic maverick Timothy Leary. A few hundred doses of LSD and one near death experience later, Alpert traveled to India to continue his consciousness-raising efforts sans acid. He became a disciple of the guru Neem Karoli Baba and adopted his monastic moniker (it means “servant of God”) before returning to his father’s New Hampshire farm to become the counterculture’s reigning Dr. Feelgood. His 1971 book, the perennially-in-print Be Here Now, became a bible for the spiritually disaffected. (A sequel, Still Here, was published in 2000.)

The message of self-renunciation and service Ram Dass has taught for 35 years is undeniably seductive, and there are precious few skeptics in Lemle’s film to challenge it. But the filmmaker hardly goes easy on his subject. Archival footage of the young Ram Dass ministering to hordes of blissed-out, middle-class white kids with facile platitudes (“Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama”) underscores the privilege and hopeful naïveté that earmarked the era. In present-day scenes, it’s clear that the clash of this ethereal ethic with the harsh realities of his current condition have left Ram Dass in a persistent state of spiritual upheaval. The not-quite-cathartic final sequence, in which he advises a despondent young woman whose lover has been murdered, drives the point home in wrenching fashion: By the close of their session, it’s unclear who’s counseling who. By avoiding predictable hagiography in favor of such ambiguity, Lemle’s film becomes a sober and affecting chronicle of the leveling effect of loss.