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As a 21-year-old, almost no one of my generation knows who Phil Ochs
is. With this riveting documentary, hopefully some will learn. Though
the film feels a little disjointed in the beginning (though still
interesting), after about 20 minutes it hits all cylinders and does not
let up. The end of the film is particularly moving.
Informal and intelligent, the documentary casts new light on Ochs, protest singers, and the 60s and 70s as a whole. Regardless of your musical interests, this film is sure to hold you. Further, many of Ochs's songs are exquisite and can be listened to and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of political beliefs.
I have missed hearing Phil Ochs for a long, long time. This brought back some of those amazingly political times in which he was so instrumental. No one seemed to have the complete dedication and full on driven voice for us since. He always was there when needed and he always had an intelligent and beautiful voice to say so. He fought for the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, those victimized by the government, both in the U.S. and abroad. This movie captures his unfailing work for those wonderful ideas and people he embraced. The only thing that could have improved this movie was to make it longer and with more of Phil's performances. In the end, it is a tragedy due to his bi-polarity, but thank heaven he was here for some time anyway.
I went originally to see this documentary because I loved Ochs music - even played some of it badly at one time - but feared it might simply be a 'trip down memory lane'. But the film is so much more than a bio of Ochs and his music or - thank god - just an exercise in nostalgia. It really captured the power and significance of the historically altering events of the 60's - both for the country and for individuals. I wish everyone - especially young people - could see it. Ochs comments in the film that Nixon used the stereotype of a drugged out-of-control protester to present the masses with the false choice of himself or 'those'. Of course that strategy of fear and false political choices is not unique to Nixon - always existed and still does. Nonetheless,it still saddens and angers me that conservatives have succeeded so well in shaping the historical lens that most people see the 60's through now. Most people today simply think of drugs, sex, rock-and-roll, and self-indulgence when they think of the 60's. Lost is any mass knowledge of what happened in Birmingham, or to martyrs like the Philadelphia Three, or the work of thousands of sincere people like Ochs who fought for fairness. The film captures this split - how the 60's was really two segments - and just as Ochs lost his way after Chicago - so did the nation. I don't have a problem with the fact that there wasn't more musical footage of Och's music in the documentary. There was enough to present his music and place in the folk scene of his time. Other sources can fill in more of his music - and hopefully people who aren't familiar with his music will do that. One documentary cannot be three films - i.e. personal bio, musical compilation, and historical analysis. It needs to have a focus and point of view. And,for me, this film captured the power and impact of his music, and how his personal life followed - sadly - the country's loss of trust and hope.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"There But for Fortune" is an excellent documentary on the life and
career of the over-looked folk/protest singer Phil Ochs.
Overshadowed by his contemporary (and idol) Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs never received his due. And this is greatly surprising since his music was more melodious and more "palatable" than Dylan's.
Watching this movie, I am astounded that he never achieved greater notoriety. For someone who seemingly had everything going for him (good looks, a gorgeous dulcet voice and a rare gift for writing songs that alternated between beautiful and biting), it's amazing to me that he never became a bigger name.
His songwriting was masterful, often touching upon topics of the day (e.g. "A Small Circle of Friends" being inspired by the Kitty Genovese story). His voice was haunting and beautiful. Songs such as "Changes" and "Pleasures of the Harbor" are simply exquisite.
Phil Ochs spent the 1960s writing and performing protest music, much of it targeted at the Vietnam War ("The War is Over," "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," etc.). Tragically - and ironically - upon the ending of the war, he became un-moored. Perhaps feeling that he had lost his purpose, he sank into a deep depression and, within a few years, was dead by his own hand.
This is a very well put together film - including interviews with his brother and sister, his wife and daughter, and numerous friends in "the cause." And, luckily, there is a surprising amount of footage on this individual who never really reached a great measure of fame.
Even I, someone who was always "into" popular music, had not become familiar with Phil Ochs until after he was gone. If you ask me, why this supremely talented individual was not a bigger name in American popular music is one of the mysteries of the ages.
The producers of this film have done the viewing public a great service. It's just unfortunate that only those people who already know of Phil Ochs will likely go out and see it. On the other hand, this movie paints a portrait not only of Phil Ochs the singer, but of America in the 1960s. So, by all rights this film should have wider appeal as a piece of history, with Phil Ochs at the center of a very tumultuous period. One can only wonder in sadness what kind of music he would be writing today at the age of 70, given the fact that we find ourselves once again embroiled in another questionable war.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"It must've been tough being Marlowe in the time of Shakespeare,"
director Ken Bowser commenting at a March 2011 US screening on the
music business shadow that Bob Dylan cast over the genius of Phil Ochs.
Until a friend of mine recently introduced me to the music of Phil Ochs, I had absolutely no idea that Ochs was the composer of "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," despite the fact that I'd heard and even sang the song, myself, many times before, at anti-war and "progressive" rallies over the decades. It was treated like a public domain anthem.
The reason for my ignorance wasn't entirely my own fault.
It's pretty clear to me that the music business and mainstream media did it's level best to erase Phil Ochs from the public consciousness, even though his music refused to die.
It's no consolation that you can run a search on him in iTunes, when you realize how much stuff has been destroyed. Even the predecessor to PBS was involved in the destruction of valuable and unique archival tapes of Ochs, on the grounds of fiscal conservatism -- anything Ochs just wasn't worth the cost of keeping around.
PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE is an awards worthy first step in the direction of unerasing and restoring Ochs to the public's consciousness. It's long overdue and just in the nick of time, too. The things that Ochs cared (from the heart) and wrote and sang about are urgently relevant today.
I'd like to ask everyone who's curious about and/or moved by PO:TBFF to run a web search on four articles, written in 2011 by B E Levine, P S Brown, M Simmons and D Loranger, that appear in Counterpunch, so that I might devote my space here to other matters. Those folks provide unique and valuable, if not excellent, specific commentary and insight into Ochs' work and significance that nicely compliment and augment the film.
For those who criticize Bowser's treatment of the music in this documentary, let it be known that Bowser said that there are at least two more feature length films worth of unused documentary material that he uncovered and would like to do something with.
I told Bowser that if he doesn't get around to making those films, I will come looking for him. There's no deadline, but there's an absolute expectation.
As it was, this film faced a decades long battle of unearthing, restoring and assembling surviving (in some cases, barely surviving) archival footage of Ochs, himself, in concert and in conversation. The royalties (none of which went to Ochs' estate), for what footage was included, consumed more than 80% of the total production budget.
That's not all. This film was originally booked to run theatrically in only a dozen US cities; but, by sheer force of word of mouth, it is now, as of this writing, slated to open, in 2011, in more than an hundred. The capstone to this ascending trend would be an Academy Award in 2012. Yes, I'm predicting.
And give Bowser a break about The Music.
Ochs composed or recorded more than 238 songs, which completely dwarfs the 97 minutes of this film, end-to-end.
Bowser has *promised* that there will be full-length song performances included, as bonus material, on the DVD that is due out in the Summer of 2011. We can hold off sharpening any knives until and unless those tracks fail to materialize.
The genius of this introductory primer to Ochs is that it raises as many questions as it answers and, more importantly, it whets the appetite for much, much more.
I absolutely want to have a say about any follow on documentaries.
Part 2 should focus primarily on the music, from the perspective of Ochs' artistic influences (which were much broader than just fellow musicians) and his artistic/social goals. Ochs was quite articulate about these things and it'd be terrific to hear him speak - and sing - this part of the story as fully as possible.
Part 3 should focus on the aspects of mental health and mental illness that played a role in Ochs' life and death. The major point being that there's still very little real world, public, if not scientific/medical, understanding of manic depression. What contributed to Ochs' early demise is still killing people today, because manic depression is much more than just a disease or a diagnosis. Its effective ongoing treatment, especially in high functioning individuals, is a very complicated, if not tortuous matter. Part 3 should also celebrate Ochs' sense of humor.
Beyond the realm of documentary, Ochs' story also deserves a feature length, dramatic bio-pic treatment. I can see Sean Penn expertly playing the "older" Ochs, but a different actor could/should be cast to play the politically and musically awakening Ochs, from college into the All The News That's Fit To Sing period.
Let me make it clear that I find no contradictions whatsoever, between Ochs' "politics," his embrace of "heroic" American iconography, his expanding musical horizons and wanting to be famous.
It's only fickle fans and critics (the latter of which, quoting Ben Sidran, "Don't know how to swim, can't even float!"), who fabricate contradictions where there are none.
Ochs was asking all of the right questions, of himself and those around him, who claimed to care about social change and the role that art can consciously play in it.
I'm adding Ochs' recordings to my personal music collection, as budget permits, where it'll be in as heavy a rotation as my complete collection of the recordings of Gil Scott-Heron. (Now, you all have heard of GS-H, right?)
One good place to start is iTunes, where there's a slowly growing body of legally free resources on Ochs to partake of.
This movie was a stunning and stirring tribute to two things: 1)The
beloved (and neglected) musician, Phil Ochs, and 2)The oft- tributed
1960's. Weaving the topical songwriter's biography through the
fascinating history of his time helps to make sense of the indelible
stamp which that decade left on our souls. Appropriately, it doesn't
end well, but it does capture that "we can change the world"
empowerment that may presently and forever be rekindled.
Here you will find beautiful music(but seldom the whole song) and filmed insights into the early Greenwich Village folk scene, the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the assassination of the Kennedy's, and as Phil embraced the world-at-large, the CIA-backed coup that helped install South American dictator, Pinochet. Here is understanding for that phrase, "the personal is political and the political is personal."
The real power-punch is that once you know his songs.. The themes are regrettably still relevant after 40+ years ! Sample these lyrics (from 1965), "We own half the world, Oh Say Can You See. And the name for our profits is democracy. So like it or not you will have to be free. Cause we're the cops of the world." Well, one update is necessary.. Because of those imperialistic policies we no longer own half the world.
If only Phil were with us now I have no doubt he could have similarly and poetically explained the financial collapse, the tea party, Citizens United, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Wisconsin attack on unions. His manic-depressive curse was to perceive the world through a deeply felt lens of social justice which filtered out media distortion and political complexities and distilled the truth into a tune you could hum. Many "protest singers" of the time attempted this but nobody did it better.
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."
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (2010) was written and directed by
Phil Ochs was a brilliant political singer/songwriter during the 1960's and into the 1970's. Phil wrote and sang about some of the most horrible years in U.S. history--the war in Vietnam raging, the civil rights protesters being beaten and arrested, the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Party convention, and the CIA's brutal intervention in places like Chile.
My wife and I were active in the peace and justice movement, and we became very active in 1969. (We are still peace and justice activists.) The political folksingers like Pete Seeger, John Baez, and Phil Ochs provided us with inspiration, determination, and courage. Now, almost 50 years latter, most people have boiled down what we did to making the peace sign and saying "make love not war." We did those things, but we did much, much more, and we did them to the songs of the political folksingers like Phil Ochs.
The film is unusual because we don't get much footage of Phil Ochs talking about his work. We hear him singing, and we get a few clips of him talking, but mostly we hear other people talking about Ochs. These include singers and activists like Erik Andersen, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, Sean Penn, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Hayden, and Judy Henske. In addition, Phil's brother, wife, and daughter reminisce about Phil. (There's also footage of combat in Vietnam, in Chicago, and in the southern U.S.)
This is an excellent movie, but a somewhat discouraging one. We in the peace and justice movement felt as if we were pushing against a solid brick wall. We couldn't bring it down. In fact, we couldn't make a dent in it. And, all the while, we knew that the FBI was watching us. (The FBI had hundreds of pages of reports on Phil Ochs.)
Singers like Phil Ochs gave of themselves to help keep the peace and justice movement alive. However, he paid a price for his singing, and after a while, his situation spiraled down, out of control.
We saw the movie on DVD, where it worked well. It's not a must-see movie, except for peace activists and people interested in the history of the peace movement. The film certainly validates the anger and discouragement we felt. More important, it demonstrates the uplifting quality of really great protest songs. That makes it a good movie for everyone.
Some fascinating archival footage of the late, great Phil Ochs is presented here and it is just stunning. As part of the folksinger movement in the 60's, his only rival was Dylan, though Ochs was far more political. It is a bit myopic in that it mostly focuses on that. That is fine, but I would have liked to see commentary from fellow singers Eric Andersen and Tom Paxton, both of whom either recorded Phil's songs or wrote a song for him (Paxton's "Phil" is amazing). Not having them is a minor thing, though, and you do hear from his brother and sister, his ex-wife and daughter, as well as other people he knew (nearly all are listed as "friend" first in their description). If you do not know Phil's music, buy any compilation Elektra and A & M put out, as well as "In Concert" and "Pleasures Of The Harbour". I'm happy to see a documentary on Phil finally being done. Not perfect, but more than recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Documentaries can offer more than just their subject matter; they have
the power to thrust a personal story of a well known or abstract figure
into a greater, historical, microcosmic portrait, or to turn a
historical triumph or tragedy into something we can experience almost
personally. This film seems to accomplish both of these feats. I've
respected and enjoyed Phil Ochs' music and message, in the sense that
the melodies are pleasant and heartfelt, and the message is in turns
earnest and bitingly sardonic. To a person growing up with punk music
like myself, this seems like a logical precursor. But this film takes
the story of another widely forgotten musician and gives us a portrait
of a wildly ambitious human being, a flawed hero, and the explosive
world around him. As a rampant idealist myself, the story is both
encouraging and all too heart-breaking. It hits all of us would-be
activists and creative, motivated, inspired, loving seekers of change,
right in the heart. In the end of this narrative, the world didn't bend
for this one ego, after all; and it may have helped crush the very soul
of this talented "egomaniac" (as a friend calls him).
And yet, he fought anyways. Ochs straddled a thin line between impassioned activist and self-indulgent artist, and in the ensuing battle, between integrity and ambition, between idealism and caution, he lost his family, his voice, and his own sanity. Yet there's a fascinating counterpoint that one can draw from this film: we can clearly see which side of this battle that artists like Dylan fell on--the personal, apolitical side which made broad illusions but focused on staying more accessible (though less and less vital) than Ochs and his blatant, confrontational intelligence. But I think that this is the true yet sadly forgotten and maligned legacy of the 1960s; not the crappy, burned-out stoner rock, psychedelic escapism and superficial "groovy love" garbage, but the real radicals trying to affect change, and their various approaches, successes and failures. And this is where the film serves as an important historical/cultural record. We all know about Civil Rights, the War, and the anti-war movement, as separate events. This film ties them all together with one singular character, who is himself, successor to another forgotten tradition; the activist/troubadour. But he is never really a hero, but a human being, and this is another strength of the film: it doesn't seek to merge all of the "Phil Ochs" narratives into a consolidated image, but each friend, family member or acquaintance is allowed to recall their impressions of Ochs and the folk scene, stories which are often, at times, very much at odds. Was his suicide a natural progression from his alcoholism? Was it a family history of mental illness? Or did his "defeat" at being no more than an ineffective pop artist, in the shadow of real heroes such as Guevara and his executed Chilean folk hero, crush him? We get different impressions from different stories, and the film doesn't try to answer all of the questions. It gives you music, words, live performances, juxtaposed with the scenes of the real life change, the volatile condition of the world, as it happened around an artist. And it was this change that began long before the self-congratulatory hippies spent their summers of self-love seeking chemical bliss. The modern parallels are frightening and, quite frankly depressing, as it looks as if my generation will never produce anyone so high-profile and well known, with that much intelligence, courage and heart. And if they do exist, the media industries certainly won't bother giving them a voice. We now live in a world that seems to sit back, and look cool and detached as the same injustices take shape all around us. And if that doesn't make this film more relevant than ever, I'm not sure what could.
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