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Movie review: 'Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune'

This excellent documentary details the singer-songwriter's triumphs and then long descent to suicide.

March 04, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Phil Ochs in 1963.
Phil Ochs in 1963. (First Run Features )

The short and tragic life of Phil Ochs is as involving as the music he wrote and played, and that is saying a great deal.

If you remember the 1960s, you more than likely remember the singer-songwriter who composed hundreds of songs, many of them, as can be heard on the strong and forceful documentary "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune," beautiful and melodic as well as pointedly political.

It was Ochs who wrote "I Ain't Marching Anymore," sometimes called the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement. He wrote the song, memorably covered by Joan Baez, which gives the film its subtitle. He wrote "Small Circle of Friends," "When I'm Gone," "Talking Vietnam" and others.

But though his songs railed against society's unfairness and could be, as fellow musician Van Dyke Parks puts it, "filled with rage," his life was not one-dimensional and certainly not simple. As directed by Kenneth Bowser, "Phil Ochs" takes us to the darker side of the singer-songwriter movement, to situations and personalities that led to Ochs committing suicide in 1976 at the terribly young age of 35.

Political liberalism was not necessarily the handsome and charismatic Ochs' birthright. He went to high school at a military academy, and it wasn't until he met his college roommate, fellow musician Jim Glover, that he discovered the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers that was to inspire him.

But though Ochs' passion for peace and justice was sincere, that idealism, friends and family say, co-existed uneasily with careerism. He wanted to be celebrated; he wanted very much to be a star.

More than that, Ochs, an admirer since childhood of Hollywood icons like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, saw himself as potentially in the same mold. He not only wanted to effect change, he wanted to be, says his daughter Meegan, "a hero who saved the country."

That goal was certainly on Ochs' mind when he came to New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, where he mixed with colleagues like Dave Van Ronk, Eric Andersen and Tim Hardin.

In a much more problematic relationship, he also met and became competitive with a young man named Bob Dylan. Friends interviewed say while Ochs idolized the other man, Dylan for his part toyed with Ochs psychologically and didn't hesitate to criticize him for concentrating on writing songs that were political as opposed to personal.

Initially things went well for Ochs. He got recording contracts and even sold out Carnegie Hall in 1966. But when he moved to California and began expanding his musical horizons — the album "Pleasures of the Harbor" was one result — his fans were not always with him.

Also difficult was the political situation in the late '60s, as the Vietnam War dragged on and political leaders Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, deaths that a disillusioned Ochs, who apparently had bipolar tendencies, took very hard.

Worse was yet to come. Ochs was mugged on a tour of Africa and had his vocal cords permanently injured. Then close friend the Chilean singer Victor Jara was tortured and murdered in the aftermath of the coup that deposed Salvador Allende. All of this combined with increasingly heavy drinking to unhinge Ochs in a way that is painfully obvious in footage of his last days.

Ochs' suicide devastated everyone who knew him and continues to resonate powerfully. This thoughtful, probing documentary closes with Van Ronk singing "He Was a Friend of Mine" at an Ochs memorial concert. It must have put people away at the time, and, like much of Ochs' own music, it still does today.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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