Phil Ochs’ first album was called “All the News That’s Fit to Sing,” and along with the titles of his most famous songs -- “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” “I’m Going to Say It Now” -- it gives you a good idea of the thrust of his topical songwriting. Born in 1940, Ochs achieved fame in the heady days of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early Sixties, along with Dave van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Kenneth Bowser’s new documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune
chronicles the singer’s life with the customary combination of talking heads, archival clips, and historic performances.
As a longtime fan, I have been familiar with the tragic events of Ochs’ life from Michael Schumacher’s excellent biography (titled, like the film, There But for Fortune.) From his early success to his falling out with Dylan, the Kennedy assassination, the escalating war in Vietnam, and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Bower’s film does an excellent job at tying the events of the time to Ochs’ personal life and artistic output.
Displaying an earnestness that has long since become unfashionable, Ochs’ musical chronicling of the times in song was so dedicated to fairness and justice that it is easy to overlook the humor and tongue-in-cheek wit of songs like “Small Circle of Friends” and “Love Me I’m A Liberal.” When Ochs moved to California, added a string section, and finally appeared at Carnegie Hall in a gold lame suit, his hardcore fans demanded he “bring back Phil Ochs!”
Ochs hanged himself in 1976, a disillusioned, bi-polar alcoholic with wrecked vocal cords. Christopher Hitchens, Tom Hayden, and Sean Penn appear in the film, to explain his importance, but There But for Fortune is at its best when it shows Phil Ochs singing, brandishing his guitar, firm in his belief in truth, justice, and the American Way.
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (2011)
Featuring: Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn, Peter Yarrow, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Sanders
NR, 97 Minutes
First Run Features