Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune

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phil ochsIt’s a shame documentaries don’t do better at the box office.

I enjoy when they’re done well, and my favorite subject for a documentary is something I know little about.

Singer/songwriter Phil Ochs is one such person. I knew the name as a kid looking at the sleeves on my Doors and Love albums, and seeing he was one of the artists on the Elektra label.

Just like fellow troubled troubadour Tim Hardin, Ian Curtis, and Kurt Cobain, he killed himself. He was 35 and the war in Vietnam had come to an end, Nixon resigned…all the things he had sang and protested against.

He had a dad that fought in World War II, and had to be institutionalized and was a manic depressive.

Phil Ochs was, too. When he started drinking heavily, that didn’t help matters.

It didn’t help matters for me, seeing this movie the day after I found out a friend of mine killed himself.

I’m not the biggest fan of folk singers (of the thousands of albums I own, only two are Bob Dylan); but Ochs was clever with his lyrics. His voice sounded like a more up-tempo John Denver.

I was fascinated by his quick move to New York, and success in Greenwich Village. He claimed he’d be the biggest songwriter ever, and ran into Bob Dylan. They started hanging out a bit, and he soon revised his statement to be “I’ll be the second biggest ever.”

It reminded me of Sean Penn’s guitarist character in Sweet and Low Down, who always thought he was second best guitarist to Django Reinhardt.

And speaking of Penn, he’s one of a handful of famous folks that talk about Ochs in this film.

Joan Baez is there, Pete Yarrow, Pete Seeger, and a handful of family and friends, as well as lesser known musicians.

Since I knew nothing about Ochs and his going to A&M Records, and veering away from protest songs…or having his 4th album called “Greatest Hits,” even though he hadn’t had a single hit (with a clever jab at the Elvis line “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong” stating on the back cover “50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong.”).

Ochs even adopted the Presley gold lame suit for a few shows.

I could’ve done without all the archival footage of the ‘60s. We’ve seen the Nixon resignation, Kennedy shooting, KentState photo, and other scenes so many times before. The footage of Medgar Evers in a casket, while the Ochs song Ballad of Medgar Evers played, was very powerful.

This documentary gets a B-.