I first started using Dr. Bronner's soap in the late 70s when I was introduced to it by a fellow latecomer to the revolution (we were born too late to take part in the 60s version). It was several years later before I actually dutifully sat down and read the incredible message on its label, an unusual hybrid of Jewish mysticism blended with Christian, Muslim and even Bucky Fuller references, all printed in a miniscule font which wrapped around the plastic bottle, making the reading quite an adventure in and of itself. It was a good 15 years later, when I met the woman who would become my wife, that I finally noticed that the soap was made in the tiny town of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, which just happened to be my wife's hometown (and which, incredibly enough, is also home to another uniquely American institution--Joel Whitburn's Billboard Chart books, but that's another story). Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox fills in the backstory of the soap, the label, and, most of all, the astonishing family story of the man who founded the company and his son Ralph, who, despite the family's tortured history, carries on his father's tradition proudly.
The film begins with one of the literally thousands of tapes Dr. Bronner made through his life (he spent the last 20 years of his life legally blind, and so resorted to taping a lot of his conversations), where he is discussing his "Moral ABC" (the gist of his soap's label) with his son, Ralph. Several title cards give a brief and alarming overview of Bronner's story--a German emigree who escaped the horrors of Nazism, only to be institutionalized in Elgin, Illinois, ultimately escaping and getting to California (in a hilarious story later recounted by Ralph) and setting up a peppermint soap factory, which has since become a multimillion dollar business and one with that rarest of all things in capitalism: a corporate conscience.
After some shots of the soap being manufactured, we are then introduced to Ralph, Dr. Bronner's only surviving child, who is about to give a speech cum performance art piece about his father in an off-off Broadway theater. The camera follows Ralph around his New York City travels, while intercutting to vintage film of Dr. Bronner (taken from an earlier, unfinished 80s documentary on the paterfamilias). What emerges is a touching, occasionally shocking story that reveals unexpectedly moving layers and brings new meaning to forgiveness and the strength of family bonds, however damaged the fabric of the bond may be. It turns out that Dr. Bronner, more intent on "uniting Spaceship Earth" than parenting his children, frequently dropped Ralph and his siblings (both of whom are deceased) at various orphanages and foster homes throughout their childhoods, causing untold trauma to them (Ralph has no memories at all of his early childhood).
What is incredible about Ralph and what illuminates this beautiful piece of filmmaking is his unabashed friendliness and outright love for the people with whom he comes in contact. Watching Ralph make instant friends with a magazine stall cashier or a fellow hotel resident (who plays one of the most incredibly beautiful piano solos I've heard) is a lesson in, as Ralph himself frequently intones, "random acts of kindness."
Director Sara Lamm knits together the family history with expert editing and an inherent dialectic between the archival footage of the elder Dr. Bronner, (archival) interviews with the now deceased Jim Bronner, and "current" (circa 2002-2004) interviews with Ralph and other family members. What emerges is a story so uniquely American and just plain unique that it will captivate and enthrall any viewer with any "family issues" of their own (and that's pretty much all of us).
The full frame image is well defined, with excellent color, in the current content. Some of the archival footage has a fair amount of graininess and loss of color, but it's really of secondary importance and is not distracting.
The standard stereo soundtrack is well balanced between the dialogue and occasional underscoring (some of which is played and sung by Ralph). Some of the vintage tape recordings of Dr. Bronner are a bit hard to make out, due not only to the poor fidelity but also his thick accent. The bulk of Dr. Bronner's onscreen appearances are subtitled to make them easier to understand.
There are some excellent extras supplementing the main documentary: an informative commentary by director Lamm, giving background on the project itself and the various family members; an "interview update" with grandson David Bronner (now "Chief Comrade", AKA CEO, of the organization), who talks at some length about obtaining organic and fair trade standards for his industry; an interesting short piece (in enhanced 1.78:1 ratio) on the processing of fair trade olives in the making of the soap; and a radio piece detailing the request of Ralph to Lamm to take samples of soap to lower Manhattan residents after the 9/11 attacks.
This is quite simply the finest documentary I have had the pleasure to see over the last year or two. Dr. Bronner's soap leaves your skin tingly, and this exceptionally heartfelt and brilliantly realized piece will do the same thing for your soul. All One! All One! All One!
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet