FILM: Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
If you’re under 50 you’ve probably never heard of Phil Ochs. Let’s just say that a bio-pic about his too-short life would probably star Jake Gyllenhaal; the handsome, radical folksinger idolized Elvis Presley and James Dean, competed with Bob Dylan, and rallied the generation of young Americans who stopped the war machine, more than 35 years ago.
But while we’re waiting for that biopic, we can get a powerful shot of emotion and information, not to mention inspiring and incredibly timely music, from a documentary now running at the IFC Center. Director Ken Bowser has assembled a collection of historic film clips, talking heads, and recordings of Ochs’ wonderful singing voice. We hear testimonials from the likes of Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Joan Baez, Christopher Hitchens and Tom Hayden; we learn how his brother Michael became his manager, and how he pioneered the genre we now call “world music.”
Ochs, the son of an unstable Jewish doctor from New York, transformed himself from a straight-arrow military school student to the founder of the Yippies in a couple of decades; he won his guitar in a bet on JFK’s election while a student at Ohio State. His politics and his music were permanently intertwined.
Are you the child of boomers? Watching this film, a little too long at 98 minutes, will help you understand the forces that shaped your parents’ generation, the voices and headlines and television news that took over the popular imagination in the years between 1961 and 1976, when Ochs, by then alcoholic, actively bi-polar and refusing treatment, took his own life. The film is rough-edged, barreling through his rise and flame-out with furious energy and smart analysis. It may break your heart, whether or not you knew and loved his work.