The story of “People!” told in documentary film at Cinequest.
In the late 1960s, Geoff and Robbie Levin were living the rock ‘n’ roll dream.
Their San Jose band, People!, had opened for The Doors and The Who, as well as appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” while their catchy single “I Love You” was climbing the charts.
That dream, however, turned into a nightmare, fueled by Scientology, the controversial church founded by L. Ron Hubbard, which split the band apart and eventually drove a wedge between the two brothers that seemed insurmountable at one point.
Although both brothers initially joined the church, Robbie left while Geoff remained for decades.
“I didn’t think he’d ever leave Scientology, which meant I’d never see him again,” Robbie says of Geoff, referring to the church’s directive to cut ties with those who disagree with it.
“I felt the same way,” agrees Geoff. “I would never see my brother again.”
After 46 years inside Scientology, Geoff was finally able to break free and reunite with his brother. And before long, the siblings were back on stage as People!
The Levins’ story is told movingly in “Brothers Broken,” a new feature-length documentary co-directed by Geoff Levin and Lily Richards that recently had its U.S. live premiere at Cinequest and will screen there again on Aug. 26 (visit cinequest.org for tickets and more information).
Meanwhile, People! has just released their first album in over a half-century, appropriately titled “The Return of People!”
The birth of People!
The Levin brothers, who went to Willow Glen High School and San Jose State University, began playing music as teenagers in the early 1960s.
“We got into folk music first, and Robbie picked up the mandolin and I played guitar,” Geoff recalls. Their first band was a bluegrass band.
“And then the Beatles came out,” says Robbie. “And everybody moved into rock ‘n’ roll.”
The brothers were no exception, with Robbie abandoning the banjo in favor of the electric bass and the band assimilating into a Bay Area rock scene that also spawned the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others. They formed People! with the Levin brothers, Denny Fridkin, Al Ribisi, Gene Mason, and Larry Norman (who would later become a pioneer in Christian rock music).
“We started getting very popular in San Jose,” Robbie explains. “We would do all of the teen clubs and proms.”
It wasn’t long before Capitol Records came calling, signing the band to a contract and releasing what has become the band’s calling card — the sweet psychedelic rock single “I Love You,” which became an international hit.
The group quickly fell in love with life in the fast lane in Los Angeles, visiting all of Hollywood’s restaurants and attractions.
“I was quite impressed. “I believe everyone was,” Geoff recalls. “We were all from small towns. San Jose was essentially an orchard town at the time.”
The band sparked interest with its 1968 debut album, titled after the band’s Top 20 Billboard hit “I Love You” (a groovy remake of a Zombies song). Despite their initial success, the band’s fortunes began to deteriorate when four of the six members converted to Scientology.
“In Scientology, I found my home, my family,” Geoff says in “Broken Brothers.” “I discovered the answers to all of my questions since I was a small child.”
Robbie joined Scientology at the age of 18, believing that anything founder L. Ron Hubbard said “was gospel truth.”
“So, we were quickly brainwashed by Hubbard’s dogma and all of the Scientology science fiction and belief system that was created by a man who will probably go down in history as one of the great con men of the twentieth century,” Robbie explained.
Scientology became central to their lives, prompting the Levin brothers to distance themselves from those who refused to participate. They decided to kick the immensely talented Larry Norman out of the band, which Robbie now refers to as “the stupidest thing we’ve ever done.”
Norman would go on to release critically acclaimed Christian rock albums such as “Upon This Rock” and “Only Visiting This Planet.”
Geoff stayed with People! for one more album on Capitol Records — 1969’s “Both Sides of People” — before leaving the band to devote more time to Scientology.
Turnover remained a part of the band’s story, with Robbie eventually being the only original member left. After releasing a third album, 1970’s “There Are People and There Are People,” the group dropped the People! moniker.
“Were they on their way to major success?” asks Dan Orloff, founder of the San Jose Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Absolutely. People! were on their way to great success until ideology stepped in.”
Robbie had had enough of Scientology and left in 1984. Nonetheless, Geoff remained dedicated, even going so far as to avoid his brother after Robbie’s departure. They would be separated for 28 years.
Outside of People, both brothers led extraordinary lives!
Geoff went on to become a successful film and television composer and songwriter, and his music was instrumental in the launch of Apple’s first Macintosh computer. Robbie’s claims to fame include allegedly inventing the stationary bike phenomenon known as spinning, which is extensively covered in the film, as well as playing bass for Rick Springfield’s band.
When People! was inducted into the San Jose Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, the two brothers reunited for the first time in decades.
“Their induction into the San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is truly deserved,” says Orloff. “Notably, they ended the 1960s as one of three San Jose bands with a Billboard top 20 charted hit, alongside Count V and Syndicate of Sound.”
Not long after that, Geoff fell into a deep depression that lasted three years before he had a nervous breakdown. He drew strength from that low point to finally leave Scientology.
“It took me a few months — about six months — before I felt strong enough to contact Robbie,” Geoff explains. “Then it was like an avalanche, and we were talking every day.”
Geoff claims that leaving Scientology has been a long and costly process. “I’ve been deprogramming since 2012,” he says. Notably, it has harmed his relationship with his two adult children, who continue to practice Scientology and reportedly refuse to speak with their father.
“Scientology has already done its worst to Geoff by isolating his children from him. “I believe they are taking a significant risk by making this film,” said Tony Ortega, a journalist who has covered Scientology since 1995. “I believe it will only serve to reinforce Scientology’s position as an enemy.” Scientology will do everything possible to keep Geoff from ever seeing his children again.”
Nonetheless, the Levins found “Brothers Broken” to be a cathartic experience. And the recording of “The Return of People!” has added a new and hopeful chapter to a story that previously seemed to end far too soon.
“I thought, ‘OK, what if we did a do-over in the sense of creating new memories for the band members who were left,” Geoff says.