The Phil Ochs Movie: There But For Fortune
(Playing at the Camera 3 in San Jose, the Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley, the Balboa in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center)
By Richard von Busack
Absolutely nothing is left to be desired in the long-awaited documentary Phil Ochs The Movie: There But For Fortune. Director Kenneth Bowser has interviews with four members of the Ochs family, and he has the sense to contextualize the singer/songwriter by talking to people outside the immediate circle of friends. One senses in this movie an eagerness not to overpraise or underpraise this folksinger, nor to roll in the squalid side of his life. A figure this nakedly open wouldn’t have given a “Behind the Music” documentary much dirty laundry to exhibit. As the music promoter Sam Hood says, “Phil was never cool…he exposed himself in a way that was ultimately lethal.”
The greats of the folk world are here to comment on Ochs’ career. Judy Henske describes the tensions pulling on this performer. On one hand he wanted to play the chords of fame. On the other hand, he wanted to be an uncompromising truth teller, even calling his audience out as self-interested and spineless liberals. “He made people nervous,” Henske says. Time hasn’t dulled the edge of Ochs’ lacerating definition of the liberal: “Ten degrees to the left of center in the best of times, ten degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally.”
Ochs wanted to be a revolutionary, but he also wanted to be Elvis in gold raiment. During a career doldrum, he lampooned his own troubles with an appropriated Elvis slogan: “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” In his scrapbooks, used by Bowser to provide a sense of chronology through Ochs’ life, we see a collage he made of Che and Elvis.
It’s moving to see and hear Ochs’ contemporaries weigh in on the subject of the long-dead artist. Particularly stirring is the noble Pete Seeger describing the fate of Ochs’ friend Victor Jara at the hands of Chilean fascists. But Bowser goes sensibly farther afield. He also interviews the Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra, a figure with a great deal in common with Ochs. The similarly gifted protest song writer Billy Bragg adds his thoughts. So does Christopher Hitchens.
Without rolling in nostalgia, Bowser sensibly gives us the air of Ochs’ times: the sense of political mania and depression in America, from JFK to Nixon. Elation was followed by crashes, hopes by horrific revelations. Historians often quote Wordsworth about living in revolutionary times: bliss to be there, heaven to be young, so it’s said. I’d argue that existing in the 1960s would certainly give one a taste of what it was like to be manic depressive…as Ochs was. He took politics personally, how could he not? Ochs lost his similarly bipolar father the same year John F. Kennedy was shot. The singer was an idealist. Anyone who holds his nation to a high standard has similarly standards for himself. That Phil Ochs was sometimes too ill to keep these standards must have hurt him keenly.
It has to be said that the first half-hour of the film is not a revelation of a neglected musical talent. In youth, Ochs recorded some of his least interesting music. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the singer was a journalist, using songs as broadsides. The ever-shrewd Dave Van Ronk here describes Greenwich Village song-smithing as “the topical song movement,” an expression Ochs grasped. Some of that topicality is irretrievably gone, leaving behind only three chord shouts of outrage. As all journalism must, this material has aged. The tunes are often reportage. Often second hand reportage, yet, relayed from the fronts in Mississippi and Vietnam, and thus impersonal.
Ochs’ late 1960s music was far more impressive, much more all his own. One of the happiest moments in There But For Fortune is the scene of pianist Lincoln Mayorga playing the ragtime riff from “Outside of A Small Circle of Friends,” Ochs’ bitter commentary on the Kitty Genovese outrage. In a fairer world, the title song of Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor album would be as well known as a song that still is a hit, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” A masterpiece of orchestrated and poetic folk rock, this was to be Ochs best-selling album.
Alienated by the buffoonery of hippies, horrified by the rise of Nixon and Hubert Humphrey’s moral collapse at Chicago, Ochs posed next to his own tombstone on an album cover. It was a moment satirized in the folk music parody A Mighty Wind. He made the turn inward that so many 1970s musicians were to make.
But this documentary shares little known stories of Ochs wanderings. He was in Allende’s Chile during the brief days before the legally elected Marxist government fell to a CIA-backed junta. Long before David Byrne and Paul Simon recorded with African musicians, Ochs traveled fearlessly through some poor cities, and on one trip he was assaulted and almost murdered by bandits. (Ochs told friends he thought the CIA was responsible.) It was the end of the anti-war movement and his own descent into alcoholism and despair that finally ended him.
The songs persist. This movie shows why. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Tape from California” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” are as good as anything composed by that man Ochs envied, emulated and feuded with, Bob Dylan. Ochs had a generous and angry spirit, a vast and skeptical energy. Our 2011 crises could have been addressed in Ochs’ still-fresh lyrics: “Even treason might be worth a try/this country is too young to die.”