Chords of Fame (1984)

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A documentary on the life of folk singer Phil Ochs.

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Credited cast:
Bill Burnett ...
Martha Wingate ...
Alice Ochs
Oscar Brand ...
Abbie Hoffman ...
Odetta ...
Tom Paxton ...
Mike Porco ...
Jerry Rubin ...
Dave Van Ronk ...
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Phil Ochs ...
Himself (archive footage)


A documentary on the life of folk singer Phil Ochs.

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Documentary | Music





Release Date:

16 February 1984 (USA)  »

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Did You Know?


Phil Ochs' last name is continually (and wrongly) pronounced "Oak" instead of "Oaks." See more »

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God help the troubadour who tries to be a star
13 April 2008 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Sean Penn once said that he was working on making a biopic about Phil Ochs. That was 20 or 25 years ago, and he still hasn't done anything about it. This is probably just as well, because I don't think Penn has it in him to do justice to Ochs' life. I'm not saying that to be mean - it's just a fact, the same way that Sylvester Stallone has no right to make a movie about Edgar Allan Poe, particularly with Robert Downey Jr. in the title role.

I watched an interesting documentary last night called "Chords Of Fame," which was made not 10 years after Ochs died, and featured commentary from Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Michael Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Sammy Walker, Paul Stookey, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger and other people who were involved in Ochs' life, some of whom are no longer around. Ochs was probably the only folk singer who came out of Greenwich Village in the early '60s whose work remained primarily political and topical during his whole career, and he was heavily involved in the political rallies and movements of the time. But for a guy whose lyrics were often incendiary and deliberately provocative (such as "here's to the land you've torn out the heart of / Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of"), Ochs was remarkably staid when it came to political movements, particularly when compared to the anarchic beliefs of people like Hoffman and Rubin. Ochs felt that any political rally worth something had to present itself as neat and orderly in order to accomplish anything, and as the '60s wore on and the counter-cultural movement became increasingly commercialized, popularized and freakish, Ochs became very estranged from the movement.

It's a bit ironic that the one thing Ochs campaigned the most heavily for during his life - the end to the Vietnam War - ended up actually killing him when it arrived. It was that moment when he felt that he no longer had anything to say or protest against that sent him into a downward spiral that included drinking, schizophrenia and eventually suicide. It's kind of sad to realize, too, while watching the documentary (which was made in 1984), that if Ochs had held on for even five or six more years, he would have found himself at the beginning of the Reagan administration, which would have given him plenty of song-worthy topics to write about. I think it's a shame that so much attention is paid to the end of Och's life as opposed to when he was productive and vital, but a tragic life is almost always more compelling than one which is simply long-lived.

Dave Van Ronk makes an interesting point in the film when he says that the resurrection of political and topical songs in the '60s grew directly out of the civil rights movement, and that eventually shifted over to protest songs about the Vietnam War. It makes you wonder why topical songs are rarely recognized today, apart from, say, those written by Green Day or (what used to be) Rage Against The Machine, which *aren't* really as literate or provocative as those written by songwriters like Ochs. We've got a war, of course, but since we no longer have a draft, too few people are driven to topical music and protests, even as a method of self-preservation. Maybe we're simply missing that spirit of upheaval that was present during the '60s and the early days of the civil right movement. Certainly we've still got civil rights struggles going on in this country, not only for African-Americans, but for gays and immigrants. Still, that *urgency* and frustration that was present in 1964 isn't there anymore. And most current songwriters fashion themselves after the singer/songwriters of the '70s, like Jim Croce, Paul Simon and James Taylor, who, while still very good writers, were more interested in introspection than politicized lyrics.

Anyway, if you can get your hands on it, and if you can ignore the bad reenactments perpetrated by repertory theater performers, "Chords Of Fame" is worth watching. Now, if only I had the ability to write screenplays...

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