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Thomas W. Gabrielsson
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
The other reviewers seem to be reviewing Och's music or the 60's protest movement itself. I'm going to review the film, which was only so-so.
I'm a great fan of documentary films, but this one was not exceptional. The inclusion of so much archival footage was interesting and the movement was fairly accurately portrayed. But as a biography, it felt incomplete to me and could have used the inclusion of opinions not just by his contemporaries, but professionals who could have offered insight into his psychiatric problems. Indeed, every time the film got close to looking at any issue in depth, it skittered away to some other topic, so I was left frustrated. In the end, I felt I'd watched just another"lite" celebrity biography like the ones I saw on A & E during the two years I owned a TV. A great biographical film leaves me with insight into not only the subject but a deeper understanding into the human heart.
Examples of missed opportunities: at one point in an old interview, Ochs says he's exploring contrapunctal music. Here, you could have inserted a music theory prof pointing out in what song that manifested. Or, examine what was it like to be "just a folkie" but have aspirations to write more complex music. There really is no information about his song-writing except he liked to do it.
This failing of the film extends to the personal. There's one sour, wry woman from his past who seems the only one willing to be critical of Ochs's whoring, narcissism, etc., but despite having interesting things to say, it's hard to credit her insights for she comes off as just bitter. Why not find some psychologist willing to talk about narcissistic personalities, coupled with the manic depression and alcoholism, so that we can see how Ochs deteriorated so badly? (and that was new information for me--he had severe psychotic breaks at the end of his life) Or surely some psychologist has written/researched about how, when the Vietnam War ended and Nixon had resigned, there was widespread depression among protest cats because they felt superfluous--interview that person rather than only Joan Baez who mentions it but not in a greatly illuminating way.
Instead, they relied mostly on family members and close friends, who had to a large extent mythologized him, the way we all do over the years, creating narratives that match our internalized metanarratives rather than remembering accurately. For instance, they skimmed over Ochs's frequenting of whorehouses worldwide, and while it's good they included such ugly behavior and didn't try to paint him as holy and purely wonderful, the interviews with the ex-wife (still-wife? the movie doesn't tell us how or if the marriage ended) had stopped by that point in the film--gee, I'd like to have known what she felt when she figured out he was doing this (just a list of STDs he brought home would have been illuminating). I also wondered if he had been autopsied and there was brain damage from syphilis also adding to his severe mental deterioration at the end of his life. So much good info to mine, but the film skitters along the surface.
Perhaps the reason for that is that they were trying to fit it into a time limit, and if so, were willing to sacrifice clarity or better art for commercial considerations...but if so, perhaps cutting out a few of the old protest march performances would have allowed for more depth.
All the interviews were talking heads indoors; the film would have been more visually interesting had they varied this.
The end song over the credits was a great choice. Van Ronk's performance raised goosebumps for me.
Some good, some bad, but for me not a satisfying whole.
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