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From civil rights to the anti-war movement to the struggles of workers, folksinger Phil Ochs wrote topical songs that engaged his audiences in the issues of the 1960s and 70s. In this biographical documentary, veteran director Kenneth Bowser shows how Phil's music and his fascinating life story and eventual decline into depression and suicide were intertwined with the history-making events that defined a generation. Even as his contemporaries moved into folk-rock and pop music, Phil followed his own vision, challenging himself and his listeners. Not one to pull punches, Ochs never achieved the commercial success he desperately desired. But his music remains relevant, reaching new audiences in a generation that finds his themes all too familiar. Written by
A singer who reflected his times and gave it new definition
Many of us are familiar with such songs of the sixties as "I Ain't Marching Anymore," "There but for Fortune", "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," and "When I'm Gone" without remembering that the author was Phil Ochs, a singer/songwriter whose name is hardly recognized today. Kenneth Bowser, in his documentary Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, makes sure that we find out. The film traces Ochs' rise from his beginnings as a young performer in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early sixties to his prominence as a protest singer in the ongoing struggle against war, racism, and injustice. An artist who developed a sizable following, Ochs' self-inflicted death in 1976 at the age of 35 was a tragic signpost of the end of an era.
Though the documentary breaks no new ground, its format of photos, live concert footage, and personal interviews keeps it lively and interesting, although the quick snippets we hear of Ochs' songs make it difficult to fully appreciate his talent. Interviews are conducted with Phil's brother Michael who acted as his manager, folk singers Pete Seeger, Judy Henske, and Joan Baez, actor Sean Penn, activist Tom Hayden, journalist Christopher Hitchens, and others, but not seen is Ochs' prominent contemporary, Bob Dylan. Bowser reveals that Dylan had a falling out with Ochs when Bob unsuccessfully tried to steer Phil away from what he considered to be his one-dimensional approach to song writing and urged him to express more of his personal feelings.
As a consequence, Dylan, to put it mildly, is not spoken of highly in the film and his estrangement with Ochs continued until Bob joined Phil years later for a benefit concert for Victor Jara, a Chilean protest singer who was brutally murdered by Pinochet. As has been repeated often, the sixties was a time when young people truly believed that energy and idealism could change society, only to be disillusioned when powerful forces in and out of government tipped the scales in favor of political assassinations and military adventurism. As a frustrated protest movement splintered and gave way to the political theater of the Yippie culture personified by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and the Weather Underground began a campaign of setting off bombs on government property, Phil Ochs career began to slide.
The murders of John and Bobby Kennedy, the democratically-elected Chilean Socialist Salvador Allende, and the killings at Kent State, hit him very hard as did the continuation of the senseless war in Vietnam. Ochs also continued to grapple with alcoholism and the bi-polar disease inherited from his father. His downward spiral was exacerbated when he was attacked while walking on a beach in Dar es Salaam in Africa, causing him to lose strength and range in his singing voice. Ochs' behavior took on bizarre aspects when he appeared at a concert in Carnegie Hall dressed in an Elvis Presley gold suit, shouting at his audience, "We need to turn Elvis Presley into Che Guevara." Though Ochs was not a major artist in the mold of Bob Dylan whose lyrics reverberated with poetry and breadth of vision, much of his work was important and inspiring, a singer who reflected his times and gave it new definition. He was "a young man with many reasons why" but when he was no longer young and the causes he fought for were foundering, his grip on reality started slipping and he knew that he would no longer "suffer from the pain when he was gone." When Dave van Ronk sang "He was a Friend of Mine" at Ochs' memorial concert, the words of Eminem could be heard saying, "And when I'm gone, just carry on, don't mourn. Rejoice every time you hear the sound of my voice."
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