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Phil Ochs did not go electric at Newport. He didn’t quite capture America’s attention as raptly as a certain other folk singer, either—in fact, it’s possible you’ve never heard of him. But the “anti-Dylan” was as entrenched as his famous competitor in the political activism of the ’60s, and he gets the Behind the Music treatment in Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune.
Ochs committed suicide at the age of 35, and the film’s final quarter details the manic-depressive’s spiral into madness and drink. The rest of the biopic, however, is a pure, if paint-by-numbers, valentine. A cascade of commentators talk of Ochs’ rise in the bohemian Greenwich Village scene, singing protest songs in a dulcet choirboy’s voice, idolizing Dylan while Dylan didn’t return the love. (“He was such a prick,” one of Ochs’ friends says.) But both singers stood up against the same things: war, inequality, the shenanigans of both the left and right.
The film delves a bit into Ochs’ family history—in brief, his childhood wasn’t a lovefest—suggesting that the void left by a distant father is what propelled Ochs into his artistic and political endeavors. Which was fine—until, in the mid-’70s, the immediate issues that Ochs sang about suddenly went away, leaving him feeling lost and without an identity. (A mugging that injured his vocal chords didn’t help.)
There but for Fortune is saturated in Ochs’ music, which plays in the background more often than not as friends and family talk about him and his era. Unnecessarily, Bowser frequently uses a split screen to show photos of the commentators as their younger selves, details that add nothing of substance to Ochs’ story. But there’s too much of Ochs here—his songs, his principles, his inner circle—for that to be a real distraction. As a friend says, Ochs had all the essentials of a great folk artist: “a stance, six strings, and an insistent voice, wanting to be heard.” Bowser’s film lets it ring—and, most provocatively, proves his work is still relevant, even if you don’t know the words.
An interview with Harry Shearer, plus more reviews from the D.C. Independent Film Festival.