The Occupy movement would have loved Phil Ochs. And the feeling would probably have been mutual. One of the smartest, savviest and funniest of 1960s-era protest singers — no small group, that — Ochs was an uncompromising and perhaps fatally romantic champion of a slew of anti-war, pro-civil-rights, left-leaning movements.
“I can never remember him turning down anybody . . . for a cause he believed in,” says Abbie Hoffman in the American Masters documentary “Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune,” which debuts Monday night on PBS stations (but not in the Washington viewing area).
Hoffman, who died in 1989, is just one in a parade of well-known counter-culture and protest figures who appear in the 95-minute film to pay tribute and to explain the singer-songwriter and his influence.
Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Jerry Rubin and many others, including his brother and manager Michael Ochs, offer helpful context and insight. Notably absent, though perhaps not surprisingly, is Bob Dylan, whom Ochs idolized. Dylan and Ochs were simultaneously friends and rivals in the early Greenwich Village folk scene (in the film, Pete Seeger describes them at the time as “two of the greatest songwriters in the world”), but Dylan quickly gained the upper hand and their cohorts in the scene say that Dylan often toyed with Ochs’s affection.
Directed by Kenneth Bowser, the documentary succeeds mightily as a guide to Phil Ochs the songwriter and social commentator, offering exquisite photographs, rare footage of performances and revelatory interviews from the height of his career through his tumultuous last days. It also basks in Ochs’s charisma and wicked sense of humor.
Though a staunch proponent of the far left, Ochs wasn’t afraid to attack hypocrisy when he saw it. Introducing his withering “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” to a concert audience, he says: “Every American community has varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberal. Ten degrees to the left of center in good times. Ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.” It’s a line that draws laughs and applause but surely cuts close to the bone. And Ochs’s ability to both entertain and prod, to amuse and skewer, set him apart from his simply earnest cohorts.
“Phil had what was essential: a stance, six strings and an insistent voice wanting to be heard,” says Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, the label that released Ochs’s first three albums. And certainly, for a while, his voice was heard as he weighed in on the driving issues of the day: Vietnam, civil rights, the death penalty, migrant workers, the arms race, and on and on. He drew his material directly from the newspapers (and nothing is quite as lyrical as a newspaper article), producing songs that fueled and fomented the protest movement even if they never became hits. Though he longed for hits and success, Ochs knew intrinsically that the movement needed a rabble rouser more famous than he for it to take off.
“If there’s hope for America, it lies in a revolution,” he says before adding, with a laugh, “If there’s any hope for a revolution in America it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevera.”
The anecdotes and analysis in the documentary are bounteous, but the flaw of this film, and it is not minor, is that it makes no mention of Ochs’s life before he started making waves with his politically charged music.
We learn nothing, for instance, of his childhood, his parents, his upbringing or his schooling. It’s as if Ochs simply dropped from the sky as a fully-formed protest singer to deliver such searing songs as “I’m Not Marching Anymore,” “Too Many Martyrs (Ballad of Medgar Evers),” and “Draft Dodger Rag.”
We’re not told about Ochs’s years in a military prep school in rural Virginia and what effect that might have had on his outlook. We learn almost nothing about his marriage other than that he was married, and even less about his daughter. And there’s no word of his father and his battle with depression, which would certainly have helped viewers understand Ochs’s own descent into alcoholism and mental illness that culminated with him taking his own life at the brutally young age of 35.
A documentary about an important figure in American culture doesn’t need to be comprehensive, but overlooking such basic formative elements undermines what could have been a much more revelatory film.
(95 minutes) premieres Monday on PBS. Check listings for future airings on Washington area PBS stations.