In 1984, in a small audio-visual room at MIT, I saw a wretched film about Phil Ochs called “Chords of Fame” that mixed personal remembrance with dramatic re-enactment. It was directed by Michael Korolenko and featured Bill Burnett as Ochs. Thrilled as I was to be seeing a movie about the folksinger I had loved and idolized since the age of fourteen, I was more enraged at how bad it was. Here was a man who deserved a “Citizen Kane” and he was getting “Plan Nine From Outer Space.” Soon after, rumors started to fly that Sean Penn would be playing Ochs in a big-budget biopic. Nightly I give thanks we were spared that one. Now, thirty-five years after his death, Ochs is finally the star of his own movie and the supporting cast, which includes Ed Sanders, Van Dyke Parks, Joan Baez, Judy Henske, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, and Peter Yarrow, is flawless.
It helps that “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” was produced by brother Michael Ochs, who makes sure the whole story is told, with the facts well in place, lifting the Ochs legacy above the oft-quoted historical footnote about a topical singer who killed himself because the end of the Vietnam War left him with writer’s block. Director Ken Bowser has given Ochs a proper memorial that resonates with the power and glory of a man who is the blood and bones of American heroism. Not the kind of plastic action toy who applies extra-terrestrial force to the apprehension of master criminals, but a hero who proves, with every breath, that the song is mightier than the sword.
The film opens with Ochs singing “When I’m Gone.” He is somewhat reminiscent of the sleepy-eyed Ricky Nelson who always closed The Ozzie and Harriet Show with a song. Ochs moves his head to the rhythm of his lyrics like a true teen idol. Sometimes he even looks a little like Cliff Richards. It is surprising to see this singer of hard-edged political songs cooing for the girls in the audience, laughing with his eyes as he sings “I can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone / so I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” But he always insisted that the revolution would not be won until Elvis Presley became Che Guevara, and his own life and work was born from the ambition to fuse these two forces.
In the liner notes to his second album, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” Ochs wrote “my Marxist friends can’t understand why I wrote ‘That was the President’ and that’s probably one of the reasons why I’m not a Marxist.” In the movie, an anecdote is told about Robert Kennedy listening to the song ‘Crucifixion,’ and his devastation upon realizing halfway through that it was about his brother’s assassination. This ability to touch people regardless of their personal status or politics is one of the measures by which we see the heroism of Phil Ochs both as a man and an artist.
“There But For Fortune” tells as much of the Phil Ochs story as the world is likely to get. Some of the early anecdotes, such as the one in which he is thrown out of the car after criticizing Dylan’s latest recording, are the stuff of legend. But there is much that is not so well-known, especially about what was going on during the last year of his life during which he assumed the name John Train and ran amok, schizoid and drunk, proclaiming that Phil Ochs was dead.
More importantly, the film gives an even representation of the music he made throughout his career, giving equal time to the later, more personal work as to the more well-known protest songs. His transition from Electra Records to A&M is explained from different points of view, although his dissatisfaction with the A&M marketing team is insufficiently voiced. One important omission is the influence that Judy Collins’ fusion of classical and folk had on his own work, and how he came to see that imitating her lead was a career mistake.
The film features plenty of live performance clips, although some of them are misleading. For instance, his third album for Electra, “Phil Ochs in Concert” was drastically overdubbed in the studio, with only the song introductions remaining live. Yet the film shows and suggests all of these recordings as having come from the concert at. Madison Square Garden. Then there is a clip toward the end of the picture, following his sister’s statement that, when he came to stay with her for the final days of his life, he would play the song “Jim Dean of Indiana” over and over at the piano. The shots accompanying this story, of Ochs at the piano singing this song, are not, however filmed at his sister’s house, but were made for promotional purposes at the A&M studios many years before. This gives the viewer the impression, not only that Phil is not in that bad a shape, but that his voice, which was destroyed when he was nearly strangled to death in Africa, has somehow magically been restored.
In most documentaries on popular artists, the people interviewed have little to offer outside of the expected banalities. Here, we have Ed Sanders of The Fugs saying, “Mistakes are lodged like harpoons in the intelligent person’s soul.” Can you imagine Jennifer Lopez saying something like that in a Puff Daddy documentary? Or the amazing yet obscure blues goddess Judy Henske saying, not what a shame it was that Phil didn’t get the accolades he deserved but, “ He became as famous as he should have been.”
The one thing I dislike about Ken Bowser’s film is the title. “There But For Fortune” was a hit for Joan Baez, but it was not reflective of Ochs. The personages referred to in the chorus of “There but for fortune / Go you or I” are convicts and drunkards. Ochs might have been the latter in his final years, but I don’t think it is a fitting tribute to point to the broken figure and sing the chorus of the song in reference to him. Better would be a line from the song he wrote about Joe Hill, the latter part of which was used for Marc Eliot’s fine biography, “Death of a Rebel.” The line was “It’s the life of a rebel that he chose to live / It’s the death of a rebel that he died.” “Life of a Rebel.” That would have been a hell of a title.
(The link below will take you to a clip of cinema Penitentiary author Bill White singing Phil Och’s “Rehearsal for Retirement” at the Phil Ochs’ Tribute that took place in the year 2000 at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, Washington)