Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (2010)

Written and directed by Kenneth Bowser
Starring: Joan Baez, Tom Hayden and Christopher Hitchens
Run Time: 97 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune,” is a perceptive and moving documentary film about the iconic folk music hero and political protester of the 1960s. The film is a “must see” for those who lived through the turbulent 1960s and those who today question our country’s continuing engagement in foreign wars.

There is no performer like Phil Ochs. His voice was pure and melodic; his guitar was his only accompaniment. His music, with satiric and intelligent lyrics ripped straight from daily headlines, inspired many who hoped and fought for change from the political establishment. Ochs had a wide influence over the 1960s protest movement; he performed at countless rallies and political events all over the world in addition to concert appearances including New York City’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall.

Ochs’s life and music mirrored the emotional highs and lows of the ’60s-from the high of John F. Kennedy’s election, to the low of the Bay of Pigs invasion, followed by the shock of JFK’s assassination; to the hope and then violence of the civil rights movement; from the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Acts, to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Che Guevara and the massive build-up of the Vietnam War.

By 1968, with the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the police riot during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and Nixon’s election, all that had seemed possible turned as ugly as the end of a bad acid trip. Ochs felt hopeless, beaten and personally responsible for his music’s failure to change the world.

A tombstone appears on the cover of his 1969 album, “Rehearsals for Retirement,” with the words:


In the 1970s, Ochs sank deep into despair and depression as his mental stability declined. He eventually succumbed to a number of problems, including alcoholism and manic depression (as it was then called). Phil Ochs hanged himself in 1976 at the age of 35.

Writer and director Kenneth Bowser (“Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” 2003, “Saturday Night Live in the 2000s: Time and Again”, TV 2010), doesn’t sentimentalize Ochs’s life. Rather, he wisely lets Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Michael Ochs, Sonny Ochs, Sean Penn, Peter Yarrow, Christopher Hitchens, and Ed Sanders, explore the focal points of Ochs’s musical career and private life.

And then there’s the music. Portions of Ochs’s best-known songs are used to complement the interviews, including “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Changes,” “Crucifixion,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Love Me I’m a Liberal,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “Power and the Glory,” “There but for Fortune,” and “The War Is Over.”

I was a big fan of Phil Ochs. His clear voice, nimble and creative lyrics, folksy music and straightforward message spoke to me as it did to countless others. The shocking announcement of his suicide made me realize that his recent works had been about his struggle to find continued relevance.

“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is a well-timed tribute to an American hero whose music remains as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. Unyielding in his political principles and unbending in his creative concept, Phil Ochs fought for his beliefs and challenged us to do the same. Dave Van Ronk’s poignant and powerful rendition of “He Was a Friend of Mine” at the end of the film completes this engrossing and enduring tribute to the terrific talent and tragic life of Phil Ochs. It also makes one wonder, where is the Phil Ochs of today?

(c) Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved


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