The story told by the new documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is a very sad one, no question about it. Ochs was one of the 1960s’ greatest folk singers and activists to those in the know, but he never got as much fame as he desired or deserved. He died by his own hand in 1976, and as the film proceeds through his life’s work, you know all along where it’s heading.
Before reaching that inevitably tragic conclusion, filmmaker Kenneth Bowser (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) does an admirable job of conveying why Ochs’ music continues to mean so much to his fans. Friends and fellow radicals like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Tom Hayden give illuminating interviews, as do latter-day admirers like Sean Penn, Billy Bragg, and Christopher Hitchens. They help explain exactly what made Ochs great — his unresting commitment to social justice, his genuine belief that songs could change the world, and of course his songs themselves. But you don’t have to take their word for it. Bowser has unearthed who knows how many hours of unseen footage, including clips in which Ochs sings “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “There But for Fortune,” “Changes,” “Crucifixion,” “I’m Going To Say It Now,” and more. These alone make the film a must-see for fans like me.
Bowser doesn’t shy away from Ochs’ battles with mental illness and alcoholism. The film’s honest depiction of Ochs’ final years can be hard to watch; by the end of a press screening last night, I was tearing up. But I’m absolutely glad I saw this movie, and I think any fan would feel the same. It’s an essential portrait of an artist who ought to be far better known.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune opens Jan. 5 in New York City. Any Ochs fans out there looking forward to seeing the film? Let us know in the comments.
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