Documentary Frames Folk Legend's Life in Political Landscape
Tuesday, January 18th, 2011
“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is a misleading title. Although billed as a documentary on the life of the iconic folk singer, the film also revisits much of the volatile and tumultuous landscape of 1960s politics. Throughout the film the viewer is treated to a series of brief commentaries on the usual tragedies of that era--including the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War. Another segment even features everyone’s favorite intellectual/drunken former radical Christopher Hitchens. By interspersing commentary on the zeitgeist of the political and cultural landscape of the period, the film richly taps into the life of a complex and tragic figure. Through it’s use of the cultural landscape as a backdrop, this documentary rises above the cliché format of focusing on the subject’s childhood, rise to stardom, and fatal downward spiral. All those elements were present, yet muted.
Phil Ochs grew up in a middle-class family in Ohio. As a child he was an outcast who immersed himself in music and movies. In the early 1960s he moved to Greenwich Village. He became known as a more purely political version of Bob Dylan; unlike Dylan, Ochs never entered the cultural mainstream. Ochs and Dylan became friends and rivals and Dylan frequently teased him for the narrow focus of his lyrics. However, Ochs has become a counter-cultural icon, and his songs continue to be covered.
The film’s shifting focus between his life and activism reflects his character. Ochs often used his political passion TO bury his emotional scars, some of which are revealed in interviews with his siblings. His father was a World War II veteran who was manic depressive, and his Scottish born mother verbally abused her children, calling them “the damn Americans.” The film also gives a glimpse into Ochs's slow decline: His political cynicism grew and came to a head after he witnessed the horrendous police brutality outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Combined with his mental illness, Ochs’s cynicism ultimately rendered him incapacitated. Footage, circa 1975, of Ochs frolicking around the East Village, and plotting the founding of a record company is heartbreaking. By then he is a mere shadow of his former self and nearing the end of his life.
This movie isn’t for people who would dismiss 1960s nostalgia as trite. But it is worth seeing. It gives an intriguing glimpse into the life of a counter-cultural legend whose influence survives in lyrics that remain resonant today.
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