Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune review

Singer Phil Ochs in his first publicity shot in 1963.
Singer Phil Ochs in his first publicity shot in 1963.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2011

A dark shadow hangs over Kenneth Bowser's documentary portrait "Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune." It isn't the 1976 suicide of the singer, who gained a modest amount of prominence in the 1960s with such anthemic protest songs as "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and such wry takes on current events as "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends."

Rather, it's the shadow of Bob Dylan. He never appears in the film, except in archival images, but his presence looms large.

The absence of the famous singer, a onetime friend whom Ochs came to view as something of a rival, is all the more noticeable because of the many other musicians who are interviewed on camera: Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, Peter Yarrow and Dave Van Ronk, to name a few. While there are certainly other factors that led Ochs to hang himself at the age of 35 - alcoholism, a family history of mental illness, even the end of the Vietnam War, which had previously been the singer's artistic raison d'etre - Dylan's AWOL status lends credence to the professional jealousy theory. Ochs wasn't coy about his desire for fame, and several of his surviving colleagues, family members and friends speculate that his perpetual second-fiddle status to Dylan - at least in folk music circles - may have eaten at Ochs.

Was he a striver who was simply too naive about what he could accomplish? Or was he an idealist? In his early career, Ochs acted as though he thought he could save, or at least change, the world through singing. But by 1970, when he issued his tongue-in-cheek "Greatest Hits" album, he seemed to have learned otherwise. The singer never actually had a commercial hit, and the Elvis-like gold lame suit he donned for the album cover art was intended as a joke. To some, however, it came off as cynical. In hindsight, it does seem pretty funny.

Ochs's music never gained the widespread acceptance that he craved and that performers such as the Kingston Trio enjoyed. His songs were too gritty, polemic at times. The title of his first album, "All the News That's Fit to Sing" (a play on the motto of the New York Times), is an apt description of his highly verbal, almost didactic style.

He never felt comfortable with the dark, at times deeply personal lyrics that Dylan is known for. It's kind of funny in a way, but also sad, that Ochs's life story - told poignantly in this movie - finally achieves the kind of tragic poetry he never fully created in his art.

Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains images of rioting, brutality, war and other violence, and two brief obscenities. 97 minutes.

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