Arts & Events

Film Review: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday March 15, 2011 - 11:24:00 PM
Phil Ochs Poster (Carnegie Hall, 1966)
Phil Ochs Poster (Carnegie Hall, 1966)
Phil Ochs during a Vietnam moratorium demonstration outside the UN Building in New York in 1967.
Michael Ochs.
Phil Ochs during a Vietnam moratorium demonstration outside the UN Building in New York in 1967.
Phil Ochs in Carnegie Hall in 1966
Phil Ochs in Carnegie Hall in 1966

There but for Fortune, a loving tribute to the remarkable career of political activist and balladeer Phil Ochs, is the film my generation has been waiting for. It embodies truths — both heady and unnerving — that will continue to draw the attention of any generation that still has a mind and a heart. Some 35 years after his suicide at the age of 35, Ochs' songs are still remembered and sung. They inhabit the soul of anyone who passed through those turbulent times. There but for Fortune features nearly 40 songs and even more performance clips and stills that validate the compelling effect of his face and voice — a choirboy in cowboy boots and one of the best songwriters of his generation. 

I once shared a stage with Phil Ochs. (It was a makeshift stage at a big Vietnam Day event on the UC Berkeley campus. Phil was singing, Norman Mailer and Ken Kesey were speaking, and I was recording it as part of the KFPA radio team). I also shared a girlfriend with Phil Ochs. (But giving his attraction to the ladies, this was probably not an unusual claim.) Even without those links, Phil Ochs was an integral part of my life. I survived the Sixties and still find myself singing “Pleasures of the Harbor” in the shower. Phil, sadly, didn’t survive the Sixties. I remember being puzzled when he turned his back on proletarian mufti and climbed into a gold lamé Elvis suit. And I was shaken when the news came that Phil Ochs had committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35. 

The film begins with a quote from President John F. Kennedy about how the real enemy of truth is “not the lie, but the myth.” JFK’s words intertwine with Phil Ochs singing “When I’m Gone”: 

“There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone 

And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone 

And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone 

So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here.” 

Of course, Phil was wrong on this score: 35 years after his death, his songs are still remembered and sung. They inhabit the soul of anyone who passed through those turbulent times.  

Filmmaker Kenneth Bowser has captured sit-down interviews with a picturebook of legendary musicians ranging from Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg to Jello Biafra. (Bob Dylan, who one interviewee describes as “a real prick,” refused to be interviewed.) The film’s Greek chorus also extends to authors and activists like Tom Hayden, Sean Penn and Christopher Hitchens. 

Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) sets the context of the early 1960’s. It was a time, Yarrow says, when children pledged allegiance to a country with “liberty and justice for all” at the same time there was “a lynching every three days.” 

We learn from Phil’s brother Michael (who became Phil’s manager and who co-produced this film) that Ochs’ parents were wounded individuals. The father returned from the battlefront a shell-shocked cipher and the mother was known to throw fits calling her children “you stinking Americans!” Nonetheless, the film shows that the siblings all grew into generous and apparently well-adjusted adults. One suspects this miracle happened because they learned to lean on one another rather than depending on their dysfunctional parents. 

Tom Hayden describes how Ochs (who became entranced by Hollywood Westerns as a child) clearly saw himself as someone walking in the boot-steps of John Wayne and Gary Cooper — “The single heroic figure that saves the country.” In Sean Penn’s words, Ochs was “the hero of his own movie.” But, unlike Hollywood’s celluloid gunslingers, Phil Ochs was a chap armed with humor and inventiveness. One of his mot subversive anti-war songs, “Draft Dodger Rag,” sounded like a harmless toe-tapper but, on close listening, the lyrics cleverly provided an extensive toolkit of perfectly legal ways to resist the military draft. 

Sarge, I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma's getting worse
Yes, think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old invalid aunt
Besides, I ain't no fool, I'm a-goin' to school
And I'm working in a DEE-fense plant

Ochs’ surviving friends paint a warm picture of the man. “Phil had what was essential -- a stance, six strings, and an insistent voice wanting to be heard.” 

He “had a way of picking up all sorts of friends” and was a poet who “came up with song ideas faster than he could record them.” “Phil was never ‘cool.’ Phil was right there. And he exposed himself in a way that was ultimately… lethal.” As Abbie Hoffman put it: “He never turned down anything.” Whether it was a street-corner rally, a benefit performance for striking workers or a concert for miners in Hazard, Kentucky, “Phil Ochs was there.” 

Hayden divides Sixties into two periods. There was a naïve period where we thought nonviolent direct action and moral force could radically transform society. The second half of the Sixties, with the serial murders of MLK and RFK, “became one of disillusion, bitterness, alienation…. The murder of Kennedy was the first warning that there was something fundamentally dangerous about embarking on social change.” Ochs’ sister recalls: “Phil couldn’t breathe for weeks after Kennedy died.” 

‘The Whole World Is Watching’ 

In 1968, Phil joined forces with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin in the Yippie Party march on the Democratic Party Nominating Convention in Chicago. Lyndon Johnson had announced he would not run but the Democrats seemed convince that the war should continue. The Yippies promised to respond with a youth-quake of music, dancing and street theater. In response, Chicago Mayor Daley criminalized the Bill of Rights, issuing “shoot-to-kill” orders and banning sound trucks. The threat was palpable. Most bands and singers backed out. Phil was one of the few who insisted on appearing in Chicago. As Hayden observes: “It was a matter of who stayed to commit their bodies to the First Amendment.” 

The film shows the amazing moment where Phil is singing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” to a vast audience and someone suddenly holds up a draft card and sets it on fire. Soon, dozens of draft cards are waving in the air, aflame as Phil sang the line: 

Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason," 

Call it "Love" or call it "Reason," 

But I ain't marchin' any more. 

Then Daley clamped down with cops, dogs, gas, clubs, bullets and some protesters bravely fought back, fists flailing at hard plastic helmets. As the protestors chanted: “The whole world is watching,” the streets became painted with blood. Ochs later released an album called “Rehearsals for Retirement” that featured a photo of his mock gravestone on the cover. It read: 

Phil Ochs 

Born: El Paso, Texas 1940.  

Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968. 

Christopher Hitchens notes that a benefit conference for the victims of the Chilean coup, which Phil organized, not only brought Bob Dylan to the stage, it also was the first public forum in which the US was openly accused of complicity in fascist takeover that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Chileans — including the country’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, and Ochs’ friend, activist-folksinger Victor Jarra. (It would subsequently be revealed that the FBI had amassed a 400-page dossier on Ochs.) 

No More Songs 

While There but for Fortune starts out as a nostalgic, feel-good Sixties rehash (the Sixties had one of history's greatest soundtracks), it ultimately becomes a very emotional and difficult film to watch because it pulls no punches. There was so much at stake in the Sixties and we put so much sweat and heart into the struggles to end the war, to end racial and social injustice. But viewers may come away from the film feeling demolished by the succession of brutal deaths of so many beautiful, hopeful leaders -- JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm, Allende, Victor Jarra. All killed, most likely, by same enduring and familiar forces with the same brutal and totalitarian political agenda. 

Phil Ochs, the nimble, winking troubador of revolution, truly believed he could change the world with songs and action. When America failed to cast off its dark manners, Phil took it personally. Which leaves us with the painful, closing chapter of this painfully personal documentary. 

The experience brings to mind Don McLean’s love-note to Vincent Van Gogh: 

And when no hope was left in sight 

On that starry, starry night, 

You took your life, as lovers often do. 

But I could have told you, Vincent, 

This world was never meant for one 

As beautiful as you. 

We are left to watch Ochs — the sweet-faced enchanter who helped feed our best dreams with his melodies, words and wit -— spiraling into muttering alcoholic depression and madness. His collapse is chronicled in a forensic compilation of videotapes and grainy 8-mm film. It's a human train-wreck as a once-proud poet goes all Charlie-Sheen. Watching Phil Ochs topple is like watching all our brightest hopes from the Sixties crumble to dust, as well. The war is finally "over" but the banks and businesses whose hands were always on the throttle of the War Machine are still calling the tune — and calling the shots. The intransigence of entrenched power is truly madness making. 

Now we inhabit the Post-Hope era of Obamabush. Even more wars raging, more innocents being cut down, there is greater social inequity, fewer civil liberties, a resurgent right and a climate calamity so huge that it's triggering nuclear disasters. 

My problem, as a reviewer, is how to recommend a great and important film that is ultimately so emotionally demoralizing. One approach would be to suggest leaving the theatre at the point that the Vietnam War has ended. Skip the final act with Ochs’ tragic decline and death. But, of course, that would be cheating and it would be dishonest — something Phil Ochs, when he was sober, never was. 

There is, however, an antidote to despair. Two words: “Cairo” and “Wisconsin.” 

There but for Fortuneis a rare kind of film that seems to call out for a new rating code. Something like Rated-DCHR — for a "Dose of Cold, Hard Realism." 

The film opens at the Elmwood Theater on March 18.