(2010)4Bruce EderFor anyone over the age 50, it will probably be very difficult to watch Kenneth Bowser's Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune without feeling a strong tug of history and issues. So much of Ochs' work and life were tied to the great struggles of the 1960s and early '70s that it's impossible to present his story without delving into those questions and that era headfirst -- but it is a story that proves worth telling, in all of its glory and tragedy. Ochs played many roles in the cultural and political life of the country (and, to a surprising degree, the world) across a career that lasted approximately 15 years -- folk singer, composer, activist, and provocateur at various times. Mostly, however, he was a singing journalist; the title of his first album, All the News That's Fit to Sing, from 1964, said it all. And sing he did -- about injustice and inequality, about the greatness that he saw in this country's potential, and the ways in which that same greatness was being squandered and besmirched by old prejudices and new mistakes, everywhere from Santo Domingo to Birmingham, AL, to Saigon, and later Santiago, Chile.
Ochs' short career -- memorialized by the seven albums issued in his own lifetime and a large song bag, plus a brace of demos, outtakes, and concert recordings unearthed since his death by suicide in the spring of 1976 -- has haunted his fans for decades. There was an earlier documentary that attempted to deal with Ochs' life and career, Michael David Korolenko's Chords of Fame (1984), which ran briefly at New York's Film Forum and then disappeared without a trace. Despite a considerable degree of sincerity and a heart-tugging ending (in which the participants each sang lines from "Crucifixion," which remains a strong contender for Ochs' greatest song), it was more notable for the threadbare nature of its structure and narrative, and some very inept stagings of incidents out of Ochs' later life, than for any true merit as a film document. Not so with Bowser's film, which gracefully spans two decades of history, politics, and personalities.
Ochs' own personality always seemed worthy of a movie, even in his own time; one participant in Bowser's movie, noting the singer's fascination with motion pictures and his ability to frame at least the key aspects of conflicts in cinematic terms, describes Ochs as the "star" of his own movie in his mind. The tragic dimensions of his life are woven through the account -- Ochs suffered from various personality disorders, including chronic depression and alcoholism, which blighted his life at various points (and more so as he got older). His prodigious talent is on display in an dazzling array of film and videotape footage from across the 1960s, but for each of his better songs (and the great ones are almost all accounted for here in various forms), there is an inescapable sense of sadness -- of Ochs expending his life and talent over time and through the very act of living. It's only the beauty of what he created, coupled with some astonishingly effective moments of humor (both on Ochs' part and the filmmaker's) that make this film relatively easy to watch. Ochs might have been on a doomed trajectory from the mid-'60s onward, as he linked his life and his work too closely to events that were completely beyond his control -- and took those events so personally that when the American left collapsed in the late '60s, it destroyed a big chunk of him as well -- but much of the music that he created is almost too beautiful to bear. At times while watching this film, one gets the eerie sense of looking at a '60s equivalent to Mozart or, perhaps even more accurately, Schubert, expending huge parts of himself in the practice of an art that would outlive him by centuries. As it is, Ochs' work has endured and grown in popularity in the 35 years since his death -- and he only lived to be 35.
The editing of this feature is so deft and effortless that even viewers all too familiar with the events and times that frame the story are likely to enjoy their presentation here. The scope of the narrative takes in virtually all of the salient points of his life, including many of his flaws. Ochs was never as successful as his instincts and desires told him he deserved to be; his debut album didn't sell 100,000 copies, much less the million that he predicted, though it may well have motivated 100,000 people (or more) to participate in demonstrations that they otherwise might well have sat out. Some of the flaws in his work and career are glossed over, but that's understandable. Ninety-eight minutes is not a lot of time, especially when it has to encompass the particulars of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the early '60s folk song boom, and Ochs' transition out of country music and into that same folk music movement, plus a lot else, including the resignation of Richard Nixon. It doesn't leave a lot of room for musical analysis, or the excesses of even Ochs' finest work. In any case, the personal story is more the focus of this film; for instance, Ochs' brother Michael can be seen almost breaking up on camera, recalling the singer's statement that he would kill himself, a week before he actually did.
If this all sounds very grim and serious, it is -- but only in part. There is a huge amount of joy and even some laughter woven throughout this film, and also (implicitly in the timing of its production) a reaffirmation of a great deal that Ochs and his friends and allies stood for. It's impossible to look at this picture in 2011, with Barack Obama starting his third year as president of the United States, and not marvel at accounts of an era when there were lynchings every three days, and dogs and high-pressure fire hoses turned loose on peaceful African-American marchers by law enforcement officials in the South who expected no questions over their actions. For all of his seriousness of purpose, Ochs often used humor -- some of it amazingly subtle -- as a weapon, and it's not lost, either on the soundtrack or in the accounts by those who knew him. He understood the importance of getting a laugh out of an audience, which was another aspect of his art that made him so dangerous to the establishment. "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" was as close as he got to a hit single of his own (Joan Baez, who is interviewed here, had a hit with her rendition of his "There But for Fortune"), and it scared radio station programmers with its playful references to drugs and pornography; only the listeners who found it (and there were more every year, once FM radio came along) got the joke. The film is also a refreshingly forthright leftist account of events from the 1960s and '70s, something that one hasn't seen too much of since the election of 1980.
Documentary filmmaker Kenneth Bowser profiles American folk singer Phil Ochs, who rose to fame in the 1960s and whose hopeful, incisive ballads were written to inspire positive change in an era of profound social turbulence. Equally critical of the left and the right -- not to mention the politically apathetic -- Ochs penned countless songs and released seven albums, ultimately growing a sizable following thanks to his positive message and talent for songwriting. In 1976, following the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and in the wake of the tragedy at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Ochs was so overcome with hopelessness that he turned to alcohol and ultimately committed suicide. He was just 35 years old. Though the FBI would later admit to singling Ochs out as a traitor for questioning American policy during wartime, this film aims to offer a comprehensive overview of a deeply complex artist through archival footage and interviews with such outspoken fans as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Sean Penn.