Friday, January 7, 2011

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Reverential Profile Revisits Rise and Fall of Fiery Folksinger

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) came to fame in the Sixties on the strength of his defiant, anti-establishment anthems which dared to indict American militarism, racism, imperialism and expansionism. Armed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and an operatic voice to breathe life into his collection of conscious-raising hymns, the inveterate rabble rouser challenged authority every chance he could.
And while Phil was most famous for sold-out engagements at venues like Carnegie Hall, he was also known to make impromptu appearances in support of the oppressed not only in the U.S. but in Africa, South America, and anywhere else around the planet he thought could help. Unfortunately, as a thorn in the side of the U.S. government in terms of the antiwar and civil rights movements, he made enemies of many powerful politicians.
Consequently, when Phil was strangled and left for dead while organizing over in Africa, he suspected that the assailant had been a CIA operative, especially because the attack effectively ended hiss career. That’s because the choking of his vocal cords irreversibly rendered his once haunting singing voice a diminished shadow of its former self.
From that point forward, the trajectory of Phil’s life spiraled directly downward, as he fought a losing battle with both booze and depression. Sadly, he would commit suicide at the tender age of 35, leaving behind not only a wife but a young daughter.
All of the above is carefully chronicled in Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a reverential profile directed by Kenneth Bowser. What makes the bittersweet bio-pic so compelling is the participation in the project of so many folks who knew the man well.
Rife with archival concert footage as well as recent wistful remembrances by friends and family, the film opens with an examination of Phil’s early years as a band geek in high school, followed by his matriculating at Ohio State where he picked up the guitar. We next learn that he dropped out of college to become a folksinger in Greenwich Village where he was inspired to step up his game buy virtue of a healthy competition in clubs with his new pal Bob Dylan.
A fond tribute to a troubled, traveling troubadour who never turned down an invite to lend support by performing and putting his life on the line for a socially-relevant cause.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 97 Minutes
Distributor: First Run Features

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