(director: Jamie Catto; cinematographer: Jamie Catto; editors: Ania Smolenskaia, Zachary Bennett, Karen Nourse; music: Alex Forster, Jamie Catto, The Happening; cast: Ram Dass, Jamie Catto; Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Raghu Markus, Jamie Catto, Eric Moffard; Love Serve Remember Films; 2019)

“A non-critical and unfocused but diverting documentary on the American academic who dropped out to become an influential spiritual teacher advocate for those seeking the inner truth.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The British musician Jamie Catto (“1 Giant Leap”), a fanboy student of Ram Dass whose life was changed by him in the 1980s, presents a non-critical and unfocused but diverting documentary on the American academic who dropped out to become an influential spiritual teacher advocate for those seeking the inner truth with an eastern flavoring. It’s a must see film for Ram Dass fans but might leave others wondering why more penetrating questions weren’t asked in this personal conversational documentary.

Before becoming Ram Dass he was the highly respected Dr. Richard Alpert, a clinical psychologist at Harvard and the scion of an eminent Jewish family from Boston. During the cultural revolutionary days of the 1960s he became a profoundly changed person after his fellow professor at Harvard, Timothy Leary, turned him onto, in 1961, the psychedelic drug psilocybin (the magic mushroom) and to LSD. Both advocated in the 1960s the hallucinogenic drug to the masses as a means of gaining enlightenment and for their drug views both were fired from Harvard.

Soon after leaving academia, the religiously motivated and wisdom seeking Alpert traveled to India, where he became a student of the guru Maharaj Ji, who gave him his new name, which translates to “Servant of God.” These religious experiences Ram Dass wrote about in his 1971 popular book, Be Here Now, which is still in print and still relevant.

The film is divided into chapters with cutesy titles such as “We’re all just walking each other home.” The gist of the film either shows video footage of lectures Ram Dass gave in the 1970s, which might be dated but still resonate in the modern world, or Catto’s fawning interviews with the fascinating 88-year-old, whose speech is faltering from a 1997 stroke (with the stroke curiously not mentioned by the filmmaker). The courtly wheelchair bound Ram Dass is affable and playful in his comfortable Maui, Hawaii home. Ram Dass is at ease explaining that he has spent a greater part of his adult life trying to undo his ego and live a spiritual life connecting him ideally with others (his lifetime aim of Becoming Nobody becomes the movie title).

Ram Dass lays on us that by becoming nobody, a zero, you are released from the demands of your ego and thereby have enormous power because you are no longer tied to its demands. Always sure of himself, even when talking about such things as the afterlife, which he makes into a rather cheery subject — pointing out that “Death is absolutely safe.” In the archive footage part we are reminded that he once said about death that “It’s like taking off a tight shoe.” The problem with such feel-good pronouncements is that one would have to take his word for it and wouldn’t know if this was true or not without experiencing such insights for oneself through meditation. 

The film is not a biography and therefore tells us little of what Ram Dass has been doing from the 1960s until now. Instead it offers a stage for him to get his views across and try to reach others. His mission here is to explain how the self is an unnecessary burden, which he compares to a suit you don’t need but is worn since birth to separate you from others. He says we don’t dare take off the suit because we got used to it and think we would be lost without it. He calls wearing this suit as “somebody training” to be somebody. He compares it to the way our entire society becomes based on the pretense that we are what we say we are and we see ourselves as competing with others for prizes rather than uniting with others to bring peace and harmony to the world.

Ram Dass is viewed as always interesting, always provocative and always steadfast in his beliefs.This is one of three biopics Catto made of him. It presents him in a good light but is certainly not a perfect documentary thanks to Catto at times turning attention away from his subject’s rich thoughts with unneeded visuals, introducing inane and irrelevant cartoonish scenes and by keeping things only surface deep. But it does capture the likable Ram Dass’ spunk, wit and intellect. Ram Dass comes through as a sincere and unwavering seeker of truth, a guru who answers all the softball questions but whose unyielding visions make him seem not attuned for all tastes.

REVIEWED ON 9/18/2019       GRADE: B