Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (2010)


(director/writer: Kenneth Bowser; cinematographers: Jarred Alterman/Jefferson Miller; editor: Pamela Scott Arnold; music: Phil Ochs; cast: Michael Ochs, Meeghan Ochs, Alice Ochs, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Sean Penn, Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Sanders, Sean Penn; Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Michael Cohl/Kenneth Bowser/Michael Ochs; First Run Features; 2010)
Top-notch documentary on edgy protest singer-songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s Phil Ochs.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kenneth Bowser (“In A Shallow Grave”)directs this top-notch documentary on edgy protest singer-songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s Phil Ochs.The no-nonsense doc uses archive footage and the activist’s folk singer friends and family members as talking heads to trace how Phil was radicalized as a leftist in college by a musician roommate, came from Ohio as a college drop-out in the early 1960s to be a folk singer in Greenwich Village, soon became one of the unequivocally strongest anti-war and civil rights voices in the movement, wrote the anti-war movement’s supposed anthem “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and tragically over the years watched his idealism diminish into despair and his careerist aim for fame elude him as he became overcome by pessimism and anger at the unfairness of life. Phil’s severe mental and physical decline became noticeable when the Viet Nam War ended in 1975: during this time frame he was mugged in Africa while on tour and his vocal cords were permanently damaged and he was grief-stricken when Victor Jara, a noted Chilean protester folk singer friend of his, was tortured and executed by the Pinochet dictatorship that was put in office by a CIA coup over the democratically elected Allende government. As a result of not adjusting to his personal changes and the world’s changes Phil became an alcoholic, sought no help for his inherited manic depressive behavior, began to have trouble communicating with his longtime friends and finally in an act of desperation hanged himself in 1976.

This richly stirring musical bio, playing throughout snippets of his many memorable inspiring songs, presents Phil as an uncompromising true believer in the cause, a consummate artist and a fiery revolutionary who believed in delivering his message through song. The film also magnificently captures the political climate of the times, gives one a sense how the unpopular Viet Nam war divided the country and how Phil’s life mirrored the big events of the day.

The doc has a likable and charismatic subject, offers an interesting look back at a tumultuous time in American history and has a strong emotional force that still resonates today. It’s a well-researched documentary about a counterculture icon and some of the good and evil luminaries of that period, that’s told in a sober-minded way.