Film Review: Phil Ochs – There But For Fortune
Although his name is mainly a footnote today, Phil Ochs was one of folk music’s headliners in the early ‘60s, rivaling Bob Dylan in the spotlight of fame for a while. Demonstrating a profound talent for taking the news and transforming it into an anthem-like song, Ochs penned such political-charged tunes as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Draft Dodger Rag” and “Power and the Glory.” While Dylan moved on to be an international, iconic music superstar, Ochs never enjoyed wide popular success and died, at his own hands, at the age of 35.
Ken Bowser’s terrific new documentary There But For Fortune (First Run Features) goes along way to reclaiming Ochs’ significant role in the Sixties’ music and political scenes. Aided by Ochs’ brother Michael (a master archivist and one of the film’s produces), Bowser features an impressive number of vintage clips that show what a passionate and smart singer-songwriter Ochs was. Besides some cool performance footage (ranging from anonymous TV shows to Newport Folk Festival), there is some really rare latter day footage of Ochs recording in Africa and later being interviewed by a TV reporter. Truly startling, however, is footage of Ochs on the streets of New York when he obviously not in his right mind.
One of the interesting aspects of this documentary is that Bowser reveals Ochs as a complicated, often-contradictory man. He was a leftist who loved John Wayne and Elvis Presley. Hearing his song “Love Me I’m A Liberal” again is a reminder how he deftly bit the hand that fed him with this satire of limousine liberals. Not content in the Greenwich Village folk scene, he moved to California to create more ornate music. Besides his prodigious talent and sharp intellect, he also has problems with drugs and alcohol as well as being genetically predisposed to being bi-polar and manic-depressive. The film sadly portrays his transformation from a young, vibrant man to a disheveled thirty-something and it comes as no surprise no big shock that he kills himself, although it is a surprise that he was only 35.
Browser draws some interesting parallels between Ochs’ life and career and the Sixties in general – from the youthful enthusiasm of the Kennedy-era early Sixties to the disillusionment that arose by the end of the decade. The film underscores Ochs’ political involvement extending beyond the stage. He was part of the founding of the Yippie party and its role at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Ochs helped to organize The War Is Over marches/performance pieces in Los Angeles and New York City in 1967. He befriended Chilean folksinger Victor Jara in the early ‘70s and, after the Allende government was violently overthrown (and Jara was killed), he put together a benefit concert and coerced Dylan to perform. The concert then wound up selling out, although the footage shown in the documentary reveals Ochs to be in pretty bad shape.
At a recent screening at the Grammy Museum, director Bowser said that Ochs’ life could have made for several different and distinct documentaries. That seems very true. However, the documentary that he did make – There But For Fortune – stands as a fascinating portrait of both Phil Ochs and the times in which he lived.