May 30, 2024
Famed '60s rock act People! return with new album -- its first in over half a century -- is the subject of documentary film at Cinequest festival.

Geoff and Robbie Levin were living the rock ‘n’ roll dream in the late ‘60s.

Their San Jose band People! was opening shows for The Doors and The Who, and had appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” while their catchy single “I Love You” climbed the charts.

Yet, that dream evolved into a nightmare fueled by Scientology, the controversial church founded by L. Ron Hubbard that split the band apart and eventually drove a wedge between the two brothers that at one point seemed insurmountable.

Although both brothers joined at first, Robbie left the church while Geoff remained entrenched for decades.

“I didn’t think he would ever leave Scientology, which meant I would never see him again,” Robbie says of Geoff, referring to the church’s call for severing ties with those who don’t support it.

“I felt the same way,” Geoff agrees. “I would never see my brother again.”

Geoff eventually pried himself free from Scientology after 46 years inside the organization and reunited with his brother. And before too long the siblings began to play music again as People!

The Levins’ story is movingly told in a new feature-length documentary “Brothers Broken,” co-directed by Geoff Levin and Lily Richards, which recently had its U.S. live premiere at Cinequest and will screen there again on Aug. 26 (visit cinequest.org for tickets and more details.)

Meanwhile, People! just released a new album — it’s first in over a half a century — appropriately dubbed “The Return of People!”

The birth of People!

The Levin brothers — who both attended Willow Glen High School and San Jose State University — started playing music while still teens in the early ‘60s.

“We first got into folk music and Robbie picked up the mandolin and I played guitar,” remembers Geoff. Their first group was a bluegrass outfit.

“And then the Beatles came out,” Robbie says. “And everybody moved into rock ‘n’ roll.”

The brothers were no exception, with Robbie ditching the banjo for the electric bass and the band plugging into a Bay Area rock scene that was also nurturing the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others. They formed People! with the original lineup including the Levin brothers, Denny Fridkin, Al Ribisi, Gene Mason and Larry Norman (who would later go on to become a pioneer in Christian rock music).

“We started getting very popular in San Jose,” Robbie says. “We would do all the teen clubs and we would do proms.”

It wasn’t long before Capitol Records came calling, signing the group to a contract and releasing what is still today the group’s calling card — the sweet psychedelic rock single “I Love You” — which turned into an international hit.

The group quickly became smitten with life in the L.A. fast lane, experiencing all the restaurants and sights of Hollywood.

“I was pretty wowed. I think everybody was,” Geoff recalls. “We were all small town people. San Jose, at that time, was an orchard town, really.”

The call of Scientology

The band was generating interest with its 1968 debut album, which took its title from the band’s Top 20 Billboard hit “I Love You” (a groovy remake of a Zombies’ tune). Despite that rush of success, things began to derail for the band as four of the six members embraced Scientology.

“In Scientology, I found my home, I found my family,” Geoff says in “Broken Brothers.” “I found the answers to all the questions that I had had, starting when I was a little boy.”

Robbie also bought into Scientology at the age 18, thinking that anything founder L. Ron Hubbard said “was gospel truth.”

“So, we became very quickly brainwashed by Hubbard’s dogma and all the Scientology science fiction and the belief system which was created by a man that will probably go down in history as one of the great con mans of the 20th century,” Robbie said.

Scientology became central to their lives, leading the Levin brothers to distance themselves from those who didn’t want to be a part of it. In particular, they decided it was necessary to kick the immensely talented Larry Norman out of the band, which Robbie now dubs as “the stupidest thing we’ve ever done.”

Norman went on to release such acclaimed Christian rock albums as “Upon This Rock” and “Only Visiting This Planet.”

Geoff remained with People! for one more album on Capitol Records — 1969’s “Both Sides of People” — before he decided to leave the band and focus more time on Scientology.

Turnover continued to be a part of the band’s story, with Robbie eventually being the only remaining original member. The group released a third album, 1970’s “There Are People and There Are People,” and then dropped the People! name.

“Were they headed towards significant success?” says Dan Orloff, founder of the San Jose Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Absolutely. People! were well on their way to achieving great success until ideology intervened.”

Robbie eventually had enough of Scientology, leaving in 1984. Yet, Geoff remained committed, to the point where he would shun his brother after Robbie’s departure. They would remain apart for 28 years.

Brothers unbroken

Both brothers lived remarkable lives outside of People!

Geoff became a successful film and television composer and songwriter, whose score helped Apple launch its first Macintosh computer. Robbie’s claim to fame includes reportedly inventing the stationary bike phenomenon known as spinning — something that is covered in depth in the movie — as well as playing bass for Rick Springfield’s band.

The two brothers eventually reunited, for the first time in decades, when People! was inducted into the San Jose Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

“Their induction into the San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is truly deserved,” Orloff says. “Notably, they concluded the ‘60s as one of the three San Jose bands, alongside Count V and Syndicate of Sound, with a Billboard top 20 charted hit.”

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Not long after that, Geoff entered into a deep depression — lasting three years — and eventually had a breakdown. From that low, he found the strength to finally leave Scientology.

“It took me a few months — about six months — before I felt strong enough to contact Robbie,” Geoff says. “Then it was like an avalanche and we were talking every day.”

Geoff says that leaving Scientology behind has been a lengthy process — “I have deprogramming since 2012” — and it’s certainly been a costly one. Notably, it has cost him his relationship with his two adult children, who remain in Scientology and reportedly will no longer speak with their dad.

“Scientology has already done about its worst to Geoff, by making his children disconnect from him. I think they are definitely taking a risk by making this film,” Tony Ortega, a journalist who has reported on Scientology since 1995. “I think it’s only going to reinforce for Scientology that they are now enemies. Scientology will do its best to keep Geoff from seeing his kids ever again.”

Yet, the making of “Brothers Broken” has been a cathartic experience for the Levins. And the recording of “The Return of People!” has added a new and hopeful chapter to story that once seemed felt like it had ended way 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.

For more about the band, visit www.peoplerockband.com.

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