American Masters: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

American Masters: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Making a good documentary without a narrator works if two things are true: if you have strong enough talking heads to tell the story, and if the story is compelling enough to work. Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune succeeds at the first of those, using interviews primarily with Ochs well-spoken, camera-comfortable friends and colleagues. But that masks the fact that there isn’t a straightforward story to the documentary, making it more of an overview than anything.

The documentary, interestingly, begins with Ochs as a key member of the burgeoning political folk scene in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It never goes back to Ochs’ childhood, focusing on his career as a folk singer. This isn’t necessarily the worst idea, since many docs rely on childhood as a crutch, but it does give the feeling that you’re being inserted into the middle of a story that doesn’t have much of a story to it. Which is not to say that it isn’t interesting. Joan Baez credits Ochs for inspiring her and others to believe that folk music and politics could be combined, while Billy Bragg introduces the whole scene by saying “Elvis Presley changed their world culturally by singing songs, so I guess they thought they could change the world politically by singing songs.”

Ochs’ suicide at age 35 seems like it should give the documentary more shape, and early on, it does. His relationship Bob Dylan (who’s not interviewed) is described as pushing him towards depression, since he idolized Dylan and Dylan treated him poorly. Specifically, Dylan considers Ochs dishonest for singing about the news, instead using his songs to examine himself. The doc could have proceeded along these lines, discussing Ochs’ later musical experimentation and depression using this division as a lens, but the thread gets lost underneath Ochs’ political and career arcs.

Part of the issue is that Phil Ochs doesn’t have a wide range of access to its subjects words. Since he died so young, there’s a lack of writing or interviews looking back, and there don’t seem to be a wide range of interviews conducted during his career. But there are a wide range of songs, and those turn out to be the focus of the documentary. There’s barely time where Ochs isn’t singing, in the background or in over a montage.

This makes sense, for a man famous for his singing, and it’s the main thing that holds the documentary together. Ochs was a gifted songwriter and effective performer. There But For Fortune showcases this, and does a decent job of presenting his career as a whole. One early label exec said: “Phil had what was essential. A stance, six strings, and an insistent voice, wanting to be heard”, which is a great quote. So too is the description of Ochs as he transitioned into a more orchestral style, and then an ironic one towards the end of his career. The doc even gives Ochs ironic credit for pioneering the “world music” trend, for wanting to record an album in Africa so he could write the trip off on his taxes.

Much of the documentary focuses on Ochs’ political views, including his support for the Allende government in Chile. A concert he organized is credited for being the first time that CIA support for the coup which ousted Allende was discussed publicly, and the death of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara hit Ochs hard. The end of the Vietnam War also seems to hurt Ochs, and it’s given credit for his destructive spiral towards heavy alcoholism, mental illness, and his eventual suicide, which is odd. But it’s the kind of thing that feels like it’s necessary when it’s so difficult to get a grasp on the subject. Ochs certainly deserves more recognition than he gets sometimes, and There But For Fortune gives him that. But it doesn’t give us enough about the man who made the music.

Stray observations:

“Thank you, you’re under arrest. I sold out this morning.” In a concert video, Ochs says this to a bunch of college students in such an immediately charming way I wish there were more footage of him.

Jello Biafra is surprised by how little he has to change “Love Me I’m A Liberal” for Clinton instead of Johnson.

“If there’s any hope for revolution in this country, it’s getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” Ochs’ treatment for ironically wearing a gold suit for his “Greatest Hits” album is sad. He was a generation too soon.

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