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Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (DVD Review)

18 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/19
First Run
Box Office $0.3 million
$27.95 DVD
Not rated.

Given the brutal crash-and-burn movie year 2011 has been to date with the critics, it feels almost quaint to go back to Jan. 9, when this inevitably sad look-back at the anti-war folkie opened to reviews that still boast a 100% favorable Rotten Tomatoes rating.

The shadow of Bob Dylan hangs over this portrait some, just it hung over Phil Ochs’ career (a lot). The former came out of Minnesota, but Ochs is remembered in my part of the country for being a product of Central Ohio and The Ohio State University, though his family moved around a lot. As a Midwesterner who, given his future legacy, improbably loved John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Ochs was a true believer in the social turmoil of the ‘60s just as Dylan artfully danced around it. The documentary doesn’t make this point, but Dylan’s unabated ability to reinvent himself likely saved him from an eventual monotony factor that might have afflicted Ochs career-wise if alcohol and personal demons hadn’t. Actually, Ochs tried to modify his presentation some after a while — a believer in street and other kinds of “theater,” he even donned Elvis gold lame as a spoof — but it didn’t suit him, and fans didn’t react well (including at Carnegie Hall). It didn’t help that he never got any positive feedback or re-enforcement from Dylan, even though they were said to be friends. One interviewee here out-and-out refers to Dylan as “a prick.”

This, of course, was yet to come. Though the documentary short-shrifts Ochs’ formative years, it offers a full portrait of the New York folk scene of the early 1960s — interviewing such key we-were-there figures as Ochs’ widow and daughter, journalists Lucian Truscott IV and Christopher Hitchens, activist Tom Hayden, plus singers Joan Baez, Judy Henske and Dave Van Ronk (who is said to be the model for the Coen Brothers’ in-the-works movie about that same Village coffee-house era). As one who fed on a kind of Jon Stewart news-junkie-dom to feed his performances, Ochs got energized against the war even during the Kennedy era (though JFK, he loved personally). As one who would appear at almost any benefit for the cause (remuneration wasn’t much of a motivating factor), he was actually one of the few musical names who actually performed in Chicago during the protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Produced by Ochs’ exceedingly personable brother Michael — the same one who has the world-famous archive of rock-related photos — the portrait is very sympathetic but doesn’t shy away from what ensued after the musical glory days of "There But for Fortune" and "I Ain’t Marching Anymore" (anthems that still hold up) faded. Legitimately dreadful things did happen to him (like a severe beating out of the country), but he also got delusional in ways that alarmed his friends, some of whom eventually just didn’t want to see him anymore. Much or most of it was precipitated by Ochs’ drinking, which he couldn’t handle — though given the alleged amounts he consumed, there probably aren’t many who could have.

Director Kenneth Bowser certainly doesn’t diminish a sturdy filmography that includes a pair of memorable documentaries on Frank Capra and Preston Sturges (both of which have shown up as part of DVD “two-fers”). I don’t know if Michael’s experience with archives have him knowledge of any special in-roads, but there is a surprising amount of good-quality performance footage here, given that Ochs was a performer you weren’t ever going to see on an Andy Williams of Tony Orlando & Dawn variety show. Even the Smothers Brothers never had him on, though that might have been asking for more trouble from CBS, given all the trouble the Brothers had getting the network just to OK Pete Seeger (also interviewed here, by the way).

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