Free Spirits (Movie Review)

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Bruce Geisler’s Free Spirits is a strange and gloriously terrifying documentary about the Renaissance Community, a hippie commune begun in 1968 in a treehouse in Western Massachusetts. It plays as part of SFIndie’s San Francisco Documentary Film Festival at the Roxie Cinema on 16th Street, Thursday Oct 4 at 9:15pm, Saturday, Oct 6 at 12:30pm, and Monday, Oct 8 at 5pm.

In 1968, led by Michael Metelica, a small group of impoverished friends started out with a retreat from the modern world and ended up growing into a huge and controversial commune, boasting 400 members at its peak as well as its own rock band, its own airplane, and ownership of real estate in five cities. Members gave up everything to the commune, working to produce income for the group while living communally in several different Western-Mass locations (the original treehouse was burned down by rednecks).

Over the years of its existence (roughly ’68-’80), the Renaissance Community becamse a model for hippie idealism, being featured everywhere from 60 Minutes to The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times to Family Circle. At the same time, members of the Community fought on two fronts — first, against townspeople who wanted to kick them out for various reasons (but mostly just for being dirty hippies) and against the deterioration of the community, as reflected by the growing drug and alcohol abuse of leader Michael Metelica. He’d started out straightedge, but when he also became the leader of the in-house Free Spirits band, he spent less and less time in the commune and more and more time on tour and in LA, recording, playing live, drinking, smoking, fucking around and snorting coke. He was eventually induced to leave by the other commune members, and the group survives (just barely, and in greatly altered form) to this day.

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 As a documentary, Free Spirits is fascinating and important; it may not hold together as stirringly as my other favorite intentional-community documentary from Docfest (Off the Grid: Life On the Mesa) but it’s still a magnificent historical document. The film’s watchability is damaged slightly by the fact that the entire soundtrack is made up of Michael Metelica’s godawful drug-addled psychedelic garage-band music (I like psychedelic music, but… ouch), but that fact only adds to its credibility, since the musical choices reflect the atmosphere of the commune and Metelica’s descent into drugs and debauchery.

I went into it expecting to see a thoughtful look at alternatives to capitalistic life. But Free Spirits ends up being less an inspiring exploration of intentional communities, and more a slow-motion train wreck as Metelica flips out and the remaining Community members struggle to keep their dream alive. They succeeded, by the way, after a fashion — though it’s no longer a commune, some original Community members still live on that land in Western Mass.

Another fascinating aspect of Free Spirits is that, at least at their inception, these hippies are PURITAN hippies — their credo is “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t fuck, don’t do drugs, and work hard — no, harder! Harder! I said harder, damn you!!!” There’s probably some message about moderation in the fact that Metelica crashed and burned so completely, but damned if I know what it is.

In Free Spirits, what we’re left with is an invigorating, frightening and at times hilarious look at a history most people have no idea ever existed. If you’re even a little interested in the alternatives to modern capitalist living and/or slow-motion train wrecks, it’s a must-see.

Images courtesy of SFIndie.

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One Response to “Free Spirits (Movie Review)”

  1. Bruce Geisler Says:

    Hey Thomas,

    I enjoyed your insightful review of my film, “Free Spirits.” I had hoped to make it out to S.F. for the festival and do a Q&A, but a family member’s illness kept me back in Mass.

    If anyone’s interested, the film is currently available on DVD at amazon.com and at our website, http://www.acornproductions.net

    –Bruce Geisler

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