A warts-and-all portrait of a singer and his celebrity, “Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune” is an overdue look at the ’60s folk movement’s anti-Dylan — a songwriter who almost singlehandedly launched the pop-musical protest against the Vietnam War, but whose early death had the tragic cast of a 19th-century ballad. Briskly constructed and rich in Ochs’ music and period notables, Kenneth Bowser’s film will be a must for the artist’s fans, but its fresh take on an overexamined decade should also appeal to Kennedy-era completists. Expect robust life on cable/DVD following limited theatrical runs.
Like any singer-songwriter defined by the Greenwich Village-based folk scene of the early ’60s, Ochs could not — and still cannot — escape the shadow of Bob Dylan. Indeed, it’s the contrast with Dylan (the one essential figure missing from the film) that best defines Ochs himself: Whereas Dylan was the songwriter-as-poet, Ochs was the troubadour/journalist, delivering metaphor-free reports on current events; where Dylan’s sound was raspy and defiant, Ochs’ voice was tremulous, almost needy. And as audiences grew hipper, angrier and cooler (“Phil was never cool,” a friend says), his sound fell out of fashion, as did the naivete and earnestness of so many singers from the period.
Ochs was no innocent, however: As the docu and its characters attest, the singer’s appetite for success and celebrity — whetted by his eminence during the early folk years — made him a little desperate. His friends and admirers, who include ex-Fugs leader Ed Sanders, ’60s firebrand-cum-Congressman Tom Hayden and even the usually acerbic Christopher Hitchens — seem more than willing to concede this fact, so long as Ochs gets his due as a musical force. It’s significant, if not particularly emphasized by the film, that the Ochs numbers that have endured (including “There But for Fortune,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “A Small Circle of Friends”) are the ones that transcended specific times and events, unlike the music that initially made his career.
Bowser presents quite the gallery of talking heads, including a few who appear from beyond the grave — among them journo Jack Newfield and Yippie pranksters Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who address Ochs’ fierce political commitment, his insistence on singing in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968 (the advance publicity for which kept virtually all other performers at home) and, later, his disillusionment with what happened — or rather, didn’t happen — as a consequence of Chicago.
Ochs had already been changing musically, moving away from the vocal-guitar formulae and adding strings. Again, like Dylan, he alienated the faithful by not giving them what they expected, with commercially disastrous results; his ironically titled “Greatest Hits” album, the cover of which featured him in an Elvis-style gold lame suit, bombed. And his attempts to carry the irony into live performance was met by humorless folkies who yelled “Bring back Phil Ochs!” Drinking, something Ochs had no talent for, became his refuge. And as his friends and family attest in the film, Ochs had alienated many of the people who loved him by the time he hanged himself in 1976.
But one of the film’s more poignant chapters arrives toward the end of the film, recounting Ochs’ friendship with Chilean singer and martyr Victor Jara, who would die at the hands of Pinochet thugs following the CIA-instigated overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. Ochs may have had a high regard for himself (“Phil was enough of an egomaniac to take it all personally,” a friend says, regarding Vietnam, Nixon and Chicago), but he knew the real thing when he saw it.
Production values are mixed, as per the various formats and sources from which much of the film is drawn.