DR. BRONNER'S MAGIC SOAPBOXNR
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox presents two documentaries for the price of one: an archival "home movie" of a legendary "natural soap" entrepreneur and pioneer (Dr. Emanuel Bronner) and the modern-day story of how Bronner's son is keeping his late father's beloved peppermint-tinged cleanser in the forefront of the conservation war.
Director Sara Lamm alternates between her recent digital footage of the son, Ralph, and the earlier material (shot by Stewart Nelsen several decades ago) in order to tell the Bronner story, which is interesting enough but possibly not worthy of a full-length feature.
Emanuel Bronner was a European émigré chemist from a family of soap makers whose outspoken manner landed him in an insane asylum. But in 1947 Bronner escaped from the institution and settled in California, where he invented an all-natural, multi-purpose soap. Bronner's product became popular among members of America's burgeoning counterculture. While Bronner promoted "The Moral ABCs," he sacrificed his family life for his work.
Nevertheless, his son Ralph, now 70, adored his father and his accomplishments and much of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is about Ralph's attempt to keep his family name alive and relevant. Who could fault the Bronner philosophy of uniting "mankind and spaceship Earth"? Sara Lamm and Ralph Bronner's mission to "spread the gospel" is highly laudable and Dr. Bronner, the movie, makes its case well. Yet something is missing in this valentine to social responsibility. Without very much emphasis on the forces that have worked against the wider distribution of Dr. Bronner's soap (or hemp or medical marijuana or organic foods, for that matter), there is little dramatic tension and no clearly defined antagonist. Most of the documentary is about elevating a little-known historical figure to the pantheon of great 20th-century iconoclasts.
We see and hear from those who knew Dr. Bronner (family members and friends) and younger generations of people who learn about Dr. Bronner from his devoted son, but the chemical and pharmaceutical company villains don't get much play. (Director Lamm might have had more success following the Michael Moore formula of targeting the opposition.)
The other problem with Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is the man himself. Sure, he's a genuine eccentric, but a little of him goes a long way, and as viewers know who've seen Sidewalk Astronomer, the 2005 portrait of a monk-turned-populist-cosmologist, quirky figures--no matter how brilliant--can easily wear out their welcome. In any case, here's a movie that means well and does no harm, only good. So there should be an audience for this mild, friendly little effort.