In Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, folk music legend Pete Seeger calls Phil Ochs one of the two best songwriters in America along with Bob Dylan. Director Kenneth Bowser (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) enlists a number of Ochs’ friends, including Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul & Mary) and Christopher Hitchens, to attest to the claim.

Speaking of the perceived rivalry between Ochs and Dylan, one talking head remarks that “Blowin’ in the Wind” is much more vague (and therefore inferior) to Ochs’ protest songs. What this critic forgets is that Dylan was speaking of the spirit of the age, not writing a diatribe. Of course, Dylan also had his mouthpiece songs, but he quickly outgrew them after a couple albums. Ochs, however, remained dedicated to the protest song form. It’s hard not to attribute at least some of the glowing praise from Ochs’ Greenwich cohorts to this fact. While Dylan evolved and grew as an artist, turning his back on the folk scene, Ochs’ own progress was apparently limited to adorning his songs with orchestral arrangements.

This adherence to the protest form speaks of Ochs’ rigid commitment to the spirit of the ’60s, at least as told by Bowser, who is intent on casting Ochs as the personification of the decade. Unfortunately for the film, it’s a story we’ve already heard countless times. In depicting the road from Kennedy’s galvanizing inaugural speech to the disillusionment of the ’70s, all the usual points are touched on: the assassinations, the ’68 convention, Vietnam, Nixon.

Bowser’s devotion to this rehashed meta-narrative means Ochs never really comes into focus as a person or artist. Folk music is about telling stories, but Ochs’ songs aren’t allowed to speak for themselves. The viewer barely gets a sense of them. Archival footage shows Ochs as an affable, well-meaning man, while those who knew him make vague allusions to his ego. By the end of the film, Ochs, apparently meant to be seen as a casualty of innocence, seems more a causality of his own self-importance, drinking to excess, suicidal, a would-be messiah who has been rudely slapped with reality.

Grade: C+



Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune releases in select theaters March 4.