Directed by Ken Bowser
Documentarian Ken Bowser walked up the aisle to the front of the IFC Center in Greenwich Village for the premiere of Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune and explained that this film was some 20 years in the making. Citing that Ochs's brief life and briefer career fell far short of the popular acclaim he struggled for, Bowser reminded the audience that, "It's important that we who love Phil Ochs and understand his relevance let others know."
The protest singer's vibrancy in performance and his music's depth and urgency are visible for all to see. Leaning awkwardly over a microphone while cradling his Gibson six-string, Ochs erupts onto the screen, something of a celluloid hero. In the once legendary Waverly Theatre—a site frequented by Ochs in the 1960s—it was easy to feel transported.
At least partially erased from popular memory, Ochs is often recalled today in an awkward hush. The product of a challenging, to say the least, childhood (Ochs's sister Sonny and brother Michael both attest to their manic-depressive father and coldly disconnected mother), young Phil tended to be a loner who idolized film stars and fostered a burning, secret desire for fame. "The psychosis of the Eisenhower era," as record producer Van Dyke Parks described it, implanted in Ochs a conflict that was to mark the years of protest to come. Deeply patriotic, the teenage Ochs began to understand something of injustice and to see beyond the surface.
In college, while studying for a career as a journalist, Ochs befriended folksinger Jim Glover who introduced him to the music of Woody Guthrie and the Weavers. His writings took a notable turn to the left. After years of studying to play the clarinet, Ochs obtained his first guitar. The writing of topical songs came easily. Ochs noted that "every newspaper headline is a song" and before long his performances at Greenwich Village nightspots led to a record contract and a national tour.
The documentary also looks into the tumultuous relationship he shared with Bob Dylan. While they were friends as young men, Dylan's star shined brighter than Ochs's who always felt at least a step behind. The rivalry haunted him. Still, Ochs's impact was appreciated by the activists who soon felt forsaken by Dylan.
Eluded by wider popular acclaim, Ochs immersed himself in protest music. By his third studio album, Ochs's transition was not into the realm of folk-rock—as his peers had moved into—but to an expansive, concept-driven format that made full use of orchestration and a variety of genres. String quartets, honky-tonk piano, woodwinds, and electronic music provided a sweeping soundscape for Ochs's resounding tenor. Seemingly always aware of, yet in battle with, the tragic destiny of mental illness that would later claim him, Ochs fueled his passion with alcohol and work. But the brilliance of his music was never enough to satisfy his conflicted self-image.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is a whirlwind tour through his music, politics, and personal demons, using skillfully edited performance and interview footage, news reels, and rare photographs. First person remembrances are provided by Ochs's family as well as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Jim Glover, Judy Henske, and Peter Yarrow. Overall, the film is a fascinating view into the urgency of the times, the movement culture, and the folk community's response to Civil Rights, Vietnam, labor strife, and the murders of the Kennedys, Medgar Evars, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ochs willingly thrust himself into the street heat—this is where he differed from the rest. Other important historic segments in the film are interviews with Yippie founders Paul Krassner, Ed Sanders (of the Fugs), and Abbie Hoffman. Hearing the personal recollections of the debacle at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protest, along with footage of the police riot and ensuing despair, was riveting. Tom Hayden, never far from his radical roots, offered moving commentary. The assaults by the Chicago police, the loss of an anti-war presidential candidate, and the dissolution of the activists' base, post-1968, had a terrific impact on the already wavering Ochs. He began to state that he'd died in Chicago along with democracy—or at least the movement.
While Ochs's later years are painful to observe, the power of the songs stand. It is hard to believe that Ochs was only 35 at the time of his death. Yet Bowser's film illustrates some of the exciting highlights of Ochs's later period, including his organizing of large-scale events, such as his celebratory "The War Is Over" concert in Central Park and "An Evening With Salvador Allende" in honor of the Chilean people. Overall, the film does exactly what we wanted it to do. It offers a close-up view of this man often deemed the protest song's grandest voice. The image of Ochs's broken life is far surpassed by his promise of a new day and the inspiration of his music:"I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," "Changes," "The War is Over," "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land," "Draft Dodger Rag," "My Kingdom for a Car," "Chords of Fame," "No More Songs," "Links in the Chain," "The Ballad of Medgar Evars," "Harlan Kentucky," "We Call for No Wider War," "When I'm Gone," and "There But for Fortune." Ochs's music rolls on and on, through the decades and the next senseless war.
John Pietaro is a writer, musician and labor organizer from Brooklyn, New York. This review was first posted on theculturalworker.blogspot.com.