Phil Ochs: There But Fortune
PBS American Masters Presentation
[Rating: 4 stars]
If this PBS documentary was just a beautifully compiled, expertly edited and painstakingly researched biography of Phil Ochs’ short but influential life, it would be required viewing for all lovers of American songwriting.
But it’s more.
Phil Ochs:There But for Fortune nimbly captures the politics and struggles of mid-late 60s America, a fractious but fascinating time in the country’s history. It deftly weaves rare with well known news and video clips to chronicle Ochs’ professional coming of age. Since the protest/social activist folksinger’s career was inextricably linked to those tumultuous times, this is as much a recap of that era as it is an unflinchingly detailed, warts and all examination of Phil Ochs’ rise and tragic fall, the latter punctuated by his 1976 suicide at age 35 after a losing battle with alcoholism and depression.
Although his early childhood years are covered, the bulk of the 90 minute program focuses on Ochs’ ascent to semi-fame as a New York City folksinger in the golden age of that genre. Interviews with peers such as Peter Yarrow, Ed Sanders (the Fugs), Joan Baez, Judy Henske, Pete Seeger and Tom Hayden, producer Van Dyke Parks and record company executives Jac Holzman and Jerry Moss, along with many others, provide fond, occasionally dark, often revealing memories of the ups and downs of Ochs’ life and career. He was a man driven not by fame or money, but to affect change in society. This came at a time when you needed a seat belt to hang on to the roller coaster headlines of civil rights, the Vietnam conflict, Watergate and the CIA’s influx into world politics.
Ochs was not only a convincing singer/songwriter with a firm grasp of melody and a distinctive boyish voice that yielded somewhat forgotten classics such as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “The War is Over,” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, but a high profile activist. He participated in the student demonstrations against the government during the Nixon period, putting himself in harm’s way to appear at now historical events such as the disastrous, riot filled 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. He was also closely involved with the short-lived Yippie movement. His work in the early 70s supporting the Allende Chilean regime in association with folksinger Victor Jara and his subsequent world travels to the poorest, often most dangerous parts of international cities culminated in an African mugging that damaged his vocal chords. It was the beginning of a personal and professional downward spiral fueled by alcohol abuse and bipolar disease that the film deals with honestly and openly.
This is essential for anyone even vaguely interested in American history of the 60s, but more importantly, it’s a vital, riveting and long overdue documentary on one of the country’s finest, most dedicated and sadly forgotten singer songwriters.
(The PBS documentary premiers nationally on Jan.23)