Film Review: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Moving and fast-moving documentary about the influential 1960s folksinger and face of the protest movement, considered second only to Bob Dylan in the power of his lyrics.

This paean to the dire, doomed but ultimately dynamic protest singer Phil Ochs opens with a black-and-white clip of him performing his carpe diem song "When I'm Gone"—a chilling foreshadowing, for those in the know, of his suicide by hanging in 1976. And there are many in the know, even while Ochs, even in his time, had not the name recognition of fellow folkies like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary or The Weavers. Ochs has been the subject of books major and minor, from such small-press specialties as Eric Blair's 2007 Folk Singer for the FBI: The Phil Ochs FBI File to Michael Schumacher's 1996 Hyperion Press bio There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. Yet even Ochs' best-known song, from which both the Schumacher book and this documentary take their titles, is remembered today chiefly for Joan Baez's Grammy-nominated cover version.

Ochs was more than a singer-songwriter, however. As this family-authorized documentary posits, perfectly reasonably, the politically aware Ochs was as much a symbol of his turbulent times. While he wanted to have impact and to be famous, he more than anything wanted to be the musical equivalent of the Gary Cooper movie hero, the lone, moral man putting himself in the line of fire to protect family and family values. (Money didn't seem to motivate him much; as his brother Michael recalls, "Phil would actually turn down a commercial job for a benefit, because the benefit would reach more people.”) Ochs hadn't the musicality of the best of the 1960s folk-music revivalists, and it was neither the limited though effective range of his melodies or of his voice that people responded to—it was the powerful plainspokenness of his lyrics. Whether writing about striking Kentucky coal miners—doing so right amid striking Kentucky coal miners—wishy-washy liberals or chicken-hawk Republicans who sent other families' kids off to war in Vietnam, Ochs struck a chord that had nothing to do with the sound of a guitar.

That limited his audience, if not his influence. "Much of his stuff was really too involved for the common man," fellow Greenwich Village folk singer Judy Henske says here. "He didn't make you feel like you were warming your hands by a bonfire and everybody was signing along… He never made you feel warm and wonderful. I think he made some people really nervous, as a matter of fact," she chuckles. There was nothing rote or automatic about his singing. In vintage clips, it's still powerful and plaintive, like every song is an argument into which he's pouring all his heart and brain.

The level of his influence is apparent in the parade of those who agreed to be interviewed. There but for Fortune sadly doesn't include Ochs' frenemy Bob Dylan, recalled here both for his callous toying with the admiring Ochs and for coming through like a champ when Ochs needed him for a benefit concert for the families of Chilean artists and intellectuals slaughtered by the American-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet. But Baez, Sean Penn, Christopher Hitchens, Tom Hayden, Peter Yarrow, Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss all step up to the mic. They piece together a remarkably cohesive mosaic: Ochs carefully plied his persona, right up to when his hereditary manic-depression and his alcoholism, born at least partially from the devastation and disillusionment following the violent and deadly government crackdown on the peace movement, led to his untimely end.

From a posthumous perspective, Ochs was indeed correct about a lot of things. Segregation was evil. The fall of South Vietnam did not create a Communist domino effect. And that era's Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, did eventually concede the falsehoods he and others perpetuated that escalated the war. Even Ochs' much-derided gold-lame suit, in a self-reflexive, late-career take on the Elvis Presley mystique, was simply just ahead of its time. The title Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune is in some ways a misnomer. The sentiment's right, but you or I could not be Phil Ochs.