A still from 'Orange Sunshine,' which premieres in the Bay Area with a show at Slim's Nov. 17.
It sounds like the plot to a Paul Thomas Anderson movie: a cult of Southern California surfers worships LSD as a deity in the early '60s, becoming so obsessed with spreading psychedelics to the masses that they move their families in together and form a church.
Church members engineer an international smuggling ring to bring hash, pot, and acid back from sources in Europe and Afghanistan. They trick out their vans and surfboards with secret compartments to hide the contraband from border agents. They launder their money through an art gallery in Laguna Beach, build an LSD lab in Palm Springs, and are ultimately responsible for distributing over 100 million hits of acid.
What’s being described here is no fiction. It’s the very real — and very colorful — story of The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the subject of Orange Sunshine, an excellent new documentary by director William A. Kirkley. The movie, which was a breakout hit at SXSW this year, gets its theatrical premiere in San Francisco on Nov. 17 at Slim’s. The event includes a performance by Matt Costa, who wrote the film’s wonderfully lysergic soundtrack.
At their core, the Brotherhood weren’t terribly different from other seekers of their era. They responded to the violence and chaos of the Vietnam War abroad and turbulent race relations at home by following psychedelic guru Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” They yearned for the higher planes of connection proselytized by the musicians, artists, and academics around them.
The difference, however, was the fervor behind the Brotherhood’s beliefs. Theirs was a single-minded intensity that put their safety and that of their families second to a larger mission of ensuring everyone, countrywide, had access to affordable psychedelics.
To that end, they made fake passports for themselves and fake school transcripts for their kids. They smuggled drugs from countries where punishment for such infractions was death. They moved from their Laguna Beach hub into hidden canyons to evade the law. They even engineered a jailbreak for Leary after he was incarcerated in San Luis Obispo for minor drug possession.
The influence of this resourceful “Hippie Mafia” grew so strong that the acid they widely distributed (including the ubiquitous Orange Sunshine strain, from which the documentary takes its title) ended up in the hands of Steve Jobs and the Beatles.
Just when you think you’ve heard all the crazy cult stories the '60s had to offer, Orange Sunshine tells a thrilling tale with international intrigue. Kirkley, who grew up in Laguna Beach, writes in a director’s statement that he was inspired to make the film after hearing rumors of these psychedelic outlaws for years. He wanted to confirm both their existence and Orange County’s roots as the site of a massive counter-cultural revolution, given the region’s conservative reputation today. But it took years for these former fugitives to agree to show their faces on camera, which is perhaps why this story hasn’t been widely told outside of the 2011 book Orange Sunshine by Nick Schou (who also wrote articles about the group for OC Weekly).
Kirkley shapes Orange Sunshine’s narrative through interviews with the surviving members of the Brotherhood -- and the law enforcement officials who pursued them -- as well as archival photos and newsreel footage. He also uses beautifully-shot reenactments that maintain the amber glow of the older material. Scripted scenes of Brotherhood members in their teens and twenties almost look like home movies, thanks to Kirkley’s decision to shoot them on Super 8 film.
Unlike The Source Family, another excellent documentary about the rise of a stoned spiritual cult from the '60s, Orange Sunshine doesn’t explore how the actions of the Brotherhood founders trickled down into the lives of their children, which is an unfortunate and conspicuous omission. Being raised around so much acid and operating under so many different aliases must have had an effect on the kids shown running around in old photos.
No, the losses described in the documentary are mainly between the adults, whose love for one another is evident even all these decades later. Kirkley writes that the movie is fundamentally about “how we discover and define what is important; of social change in its infancy; of the choices people make, losses suffered and love forged.”
Costa’s music provides another narrative thread. Like the cinematography, it gives the story a golden '60s patina. In an email from Argentina, where he’s working on a new record, the Huntington Beach songwriter tells me that before working on the film, he’d only heard of the Brotherhood from OC Weekly articles.
When Kirkley asked Costa to contribute some songs to the documentary, though, the music poured out of him. “Three songs turned into 40,” Costa says. The soundtrack swings between jazzier tunes influenced by Art Blakey and jangly rock ‘n’ roll in the realm of psych-folksters Rodriguez and Allah-Las.
Costa grew up skateboarding more than surfing, but says he sees the connection between psychoactive drugs, surfing, and art as “just shredding the BS.”
“If you seek something righteous, whether you seclude yourself in a monastery or you take LSD and go surfing,” he says, “the goal is enlightenment rather than escapism.”
In the end, the Brotherhood’s path comes off in Orange Sunshine as equal parts societal withdrawal and search for enlightenment. In attempting to escape the harsh realities of their era -- as well as international drug laws -- these radical hippies lived in an alternate universe of their own making. Theirs is a vivid world that was just made to be projected on the big screen.
A screening of 'Orange Sunshine' with a performance by Matt Costa takes place on Thursday, Nov. 17, at Slim’s. Details here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.