Reviews

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

The documentary is alternately illuminating and sketchy, using Phil Ochs to reveal the decade.


Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Director: Kenneth Bowser
Cast: Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ochs, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn
Rated: NR
Studio: First Run Features
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-01-05 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
I go to civil rights rallies,

And I put down the old D.A.R.

I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy.

I hope every colored boy becomes a star,

But don't talk about revolution.

That's going a little bit too far.

-- Phil Ochs, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal"

"Elvis Presley changed the world culturally by singing songs, and I guess they thought perhaps we could change the world politically by singing songs." Reflecting on the protest singers of the 1960s, Billy Bragg is at once nostalgic and skeptical, knowing now, as we all do, that such hopes for the effects of "songs' were dashed. Still, he sets a frame for Kenneth Bowser’s documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a frame that recognizes the artist's complexity, his brilliance and his despair.

The documentary is alternately illuminating and sketchy, using Ochs to reveal the decade. Born in El Paso in 1940, Phil Ochs found his calling, as it were, when he was a student at Ohio State. More specifically, when he roomed with Jim Glover, who remembers here that he "kind of introduced [Ochs] to the left wing music, the people's music," like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Ochs and Glover formed a duo ("The Singing Socialists"), then broke up "before their first gig." When Ochs moved to the Village in 1962, he heard poetry, drank late into the night, and helped to build a community of artists. According to his friend Andy Wickham, Ochs pursued "left wing politics" as a career. Still, "We know that what was in his heart was John Wayne and Gary Cooper," images and ideals emerging from his youthful love for the movies as well as his complicated relationship with his father, Jack, a doctor who served in World War and who came home with what Phil's brother Michael calls "mental problems," leading to his institutionalization and hardships for the family.

Ochs determined he would "become the best songwriter in the country," as he says in an archival interview. His wife Alice remembers that they "felt like they were part of something important," and that he was especially driven to speak his mind: "He'd stay up all night with the newspapers, finding material for songs." (He described himself as a "singing journalist.") She adds, "So much of Phil's work ended up being about the unfairnesses of life." The couple hosted community gatherings in their apartment, their guests including singers Judy Henske, David Blue, Eric Andersen, and Bob Dylan.

Ochs and Dylan (who is not interviewed here) were friends, Alice says, as well as competitors. Both developed reputations as being great songwriters, but, as Sam Hood puts it, "Dylan refused to ever give him his due.... He was such a prick." Christopher Hitchens compares them in a way that recalls the divide between the Beatles and the Stones: Ochs' "very tough, grainy songs," he says, "were far more political and much more tough-minded than the much more generalized, accessible 'Blowin' in the Wind.'" Ochs' anger was increasingly specific, in songs like "Draft Dodger Rag," "I Ain't Marching Anymore," and "Here's to the State of Mississippi" ("For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines, / If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find").

Even as the film celebrates Ochs' art and his outrage, it suggests that his own trajectory was as doomed as that of the movement. Tom Hayden provides a helpful structure when he describes the "two halves" of the '60s, the first optimistic, based in a belief that the American dream might be redeemed through direct action. "We actually thought that through the force of morality and persuasion, we were going to take the new frontier to a more progressive or radical conclusion." Following John Kennedy's assassination ("the first warning that there was something fundamentally dangerous about embarking on social change"), then Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy's, as well as the '68 Democratic Convention (where Ochs performed, appreciating the yippies' "sense of theater"), the movement changed shape. The second half, Hayden says, "becomes one of disillusionment, bitterness, alienation, or, someone said, just a clarification of where we really stood."

In There But For Fortune (the title borrowed from one of his albums), Ochs comes to embody this shift -- in effect and attitude. Speaking of the era's political traumas, Lucian Truscott IV notes, “I think Phil was a big enough egomaniac to take it all personally.” Just so, he becomes increasingly depressive (suffering from the bipolar disorder that afflicted his father) and drinks heavily; "I guess everybody goes through a stage of disillusionment," he says in an archival interview, "I don’t think justice will out, I don’t think fairness wins anymore."

The film skips quickly through his last years (he hanged himself in 1976 at age 35), including brief notes from friends like Wickham (who recalls a jaunt to Haiti, where Ochs insisted on showing him "the street," showing "absolutely no regard for personal safety"). For all his personal demons, There But for Fortune points out that Ochs' hope for change and faith in art remain topical. As his daughter Meegan says, he'd appreciate that 30 years on, his songs still resonate. But, she adds, "I don't feel that he would be pleased that the content was so similar, and that so many of the battles that felt like they were possible to win had yet to be won."

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image