If you think becoming a “somebody” in life is an uphill climb, it turns out, at least according to famed Boston-born spiritual teacher and truth seeker Dr. Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass), that making oneself into a “nobody” — that is, truly open and egoless — is a much harder road. He also considers it the way to go for real personal freedom and enlightenment.
That’s just one of many life lessons and wise assertions imparted by Alpert in producer-director Jamie Catto’s enjoyable documentary “Becoming Nobody,” which, though hardly a definitive look at the former Harvard psychologist and much-published author (including the 1971 bestseller “Be Here Now”), proves a strong and moving reminder of Alpert’s spiritual insight.
The spine of Catto’s compact film is a series of interviews, shot in 2015, with longtime friend and teacher Alpert in the philosopher’s Maui home. Alpert, now 88, is seen in this footage using a wheelchair as a result of a severe stroke he experienced in 1997. But Alpert’s speech, despite his stroke-related expressive aphasia, remains articulate, with his grace, humor and self-deprecating candor fully intact.
Alpert’s engaging manner and Catto’s deep and abiding, yet non-obsequious, devotion to his “star” combine to make their conversation both involving and authentic as Alpert covers a range of topics including anger, love, soul and self, the “masks” we wear for others, and reconciling death as both a concept and an actual state.
“People are so much more than their personalities,” says Alpert, who’s refreshingly open about his own behavioral contradictions.
But a greater part of the film is composed of extended clips from past lectures and discussions (no dates are given but they reportedly span from about 1965 to 1995) in which the Brahmin-accented Alpert holds forth on several similar topics as in his sit-down with Catto, plus other theories and observations such as the distinction between “being holy” and “being human” and how our “downs” can be more instructive than our “highs.”
Catto, who also co-composed the film’s electronic-tinged music, weaves in illustrative clips from vintage cartoons, old feature films, newsreeels and other pieces of archival imagery to accompany Alpert’s discourse. Despite providing jaunty backup, they can feel more like padding or visual distractions than artistic necessity.
If anything these excerpts underscore the film’s limited breadth and context; there are no outside supporting or dissenting voices here, much less input from friends (beyond Catto), family members, colleagues or collaborators. Alpert’s personal and professional history feels under-charted; you pick up pieces of what you can during his various lectures and in his interview with the filmmaker.
If Alpert wasn’t such an intriguing character, this absence may be less problematic. But his life has been so unique and provocative that, especially for the less initiated, many questions may arise: How does he navigate his clearly limited day-to-day existence? What of his sexuality (he has long identified as bisexual) and how, if at all, has it connected to his spiritual outlook? What was this ex-wild child’s relationship with his parents and siblings like as the years went on? (There have been other cinematic profiles, including the 2001 feature doc “Ram Dass, Fierce Grace” and the 2017 short “Ram Dass, Going Home” for those in search of companion pieces.)
That said, we do directly learn about a few of Alpert’s seminal life passages. They include the psychedelic-drug-fueled friendship with counterculture icon Timothy Leary that informed much of Alpert’s 1960s-era exploration and Alpert’s lengthy, 1967 stay in India where he studied under mystic Neem Karoli Baba (Alpert called him Maharaj-ji or “my guru”; Baba named Alpert Ram Dass or “Servant of God”).
Bits about Alpert’s youth and his then-evolving feelings of otherness, as well as how he has squared his Judaic roots with his Hindu, Buddhist and Christian consciousness, are also peppered in.
Given Catto’s commitment to Alpert — and the director’s guiding presence throughout the film — more specifics about Catto’s own mystical life trajectory might have been a worthy addition.
Still, if “Becoming Nobody” may dig only as deeply as the filmmaker and/or Alpert chose to go, it remains an inspiring, stirringly meditative portrait of one man’s profound spiritual influence on a world that has surely needed him.
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 6, Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles