Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is a fascinating documentary overview of the largely unheralded, overlooked sixties protest singer who spent the bulk of his career in the shadow of his more famous, critically acclaimed friend and inspiration Bob Dylan. However, as this film so often poignantly illustrates, where Dylan chose to shroud his persona in a cloud of vagueness and mystery, Ochs wore his political values much more visibly on his sleeve.
While Dylan’s protest songs may have led the political charge of the sixties progressive “movement,” they were just as often measured by the sort of lyrical ambiguity that was such an essential element of the mystique he was creating even back then.
By contrast, Phil Ochs took a far more direct approach in songs like “There But For Fortune” (a song most often identified with fellow protest icon Joan Baez), the antiwar anthem “I Aint’ Marching Anymore,” and “Love Me, I’m A Liberal,” a biting satirical commentary directed more cynically towards his own. Songs like these and others left little room for doubt of Phil Ochs’ lefty politics.
Arriving on the burgeoning New York folk scene at roughly the same time as Dylan, Ochs quickly befriended the future “voice of a generation” and adjusted his own ambitions accordingly — deciding he would need to settle on being merely “the second best songwriter in the world.”
But as Dylan set out to conquer the music world, Ochs set his own sights on the larger goal of actually changing it, organizing benefit concerts for the causes of union workers and civil rights. Eventually he would take the equivalent of a self inflicted bullet for these beliefs.
Although Ochs artistic and commercial fortunes would take many twists and turns over the years, he never strayed far from his original political idealism. As this film so vividly points out (backing it up with rare, original footage from the period), even as Ochs was enjoying a minor commercial radio hit with “Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends” (from the A&M records album Pleasures Of The Harbor), he was organizing the Yippie Party with fellow radicals Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner. When the Yippies famously disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Phil Ochs was right there in the middle of the tear gas and the pepper spray.
But the cracks in Ochs’ fragile, idealistic hopes for progressive change were beginning to show even then. By the time of the political assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and especially his friend Chilean protest singer Victor Jana (murdered by soldiers in a football stadium in the coup which toppled the government of President Allende), they had grown into an insurmountable chasm. This was followed in short order by alcoholism, mental illness and Ochs’ eventual suicide in 1975.
All of this — accompanied by footage that is quite riveting, yet often painful to watch — is documented in Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.
Made with the blessing and participation of family members like brother and former manager Micheal Ochs, the film combines rare concert and newsreel footage and new interviews with Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn, Peter Yarrow, Billy Bragg and other contemporaries. The result is a fascinating, sympathetic and long overdue career study of this criminally overlooked artist, activist and American.
The DVD extras — which include a photo gallery and a director’s bio — aren’t all that great. But the rare concert and historical archive footage makes this a film that is more than worth your attention.