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This article was published 19/5/2011 (2135 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
IF folk singer Phil Ochs was a formidable figure in the protest song scene of the '60s, few of his songs seem to have survived into the 21st century.
His music was simply of that time. Like the man himself.
He was cursed with comparisons to his friend and musical rival Bob Dylan, an artist who was at once more internalized and more accessible. Dylan called Ochs a "journalist" because he would rather sing about outside issues and causes than express what was inside his oft-tortured soul.
Kenneth Bowser's documentary offers a corrective, intimate portrait of the singer, a man who fought the good fight against political demons -- Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the CIA -- but was ultimately vanquished by his inner ones: Ochs killed himself at the age of 35.
There But for Fortune (the title is taken from one of Ochs's song recorded by Joan Baez) offers a few surprising revelations about the man, who went to school at a military academy, the son of a mentally shattered war vet father and an emotionally remote mother (Ochs' brother Michael, one of the film's producers, is often onscreen to open the doors to the skeletons in the Ochs family closet).
Upon discovering folk music, Phil was quickly absorbed into the folk scene of New York's Greenwich Village, where he composed a prodigious number of songs, often inspired by poring through newspapers.
The early '60s gave a protest singer a lot to sing about: racism, segregation, and the escalating conflicts of Vietnam. Ochs, a driven performer who secretly craved fame and adulation, kicked into gear as an artist and organizer, with songwriting highlights including the anti-Vietnam anthem I Ain't Marching Anymore and the acerbic-satiric Love Me I'm a Liberal.
His causes had real importance for Ochs, and he was deeply affected by the assassinations and violence that marked the first half of the '60s. "I think Phil was a big enough egomaniac that he took it all personally," quips his writer friend Lucian Truscott IV.
His commitment was so charged that Ochs found himself adrift after the Vietnam war, leading to erratic behaviour, alcoholism, and eventually a tragic end.
In contrast to abundant rock 'n' roll fatalities of the era attributable to gross self-indulgence, this comprehensive doc gives Ochs the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that his ultimate undoing was not that he cared too little, but too much.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
Directed by Kenneth Bowser
3 1/2 stars out of five