If you're just getting acquainted with the music of Phil Ochs and you're not sure how important he is, you'll be struck by something Pete Seeger says in the documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune. "Here I am with two of the greatest songwriters in the world," says Seeger, remembering a 1960s jam session. One of the songwriters was Ochs. The other was Bob Dylan.
Seeger is one of many famous people interviewed in this fine, sad look at the life and music of Ochs, who committed suicide in 1976 at age 35. Also testifying are 1960s contemporaries of Ochs like Joan Baez and Tom Hayden, and there are tributes from younger entertainers (Sean Penn, Billy Bragg). Key insights are provided by family members, including Ochs' daughter Meegan and his brother and manager Michael.
Ochs was an important figure in the folk-music movement of the early 1960s, which is not recalled as vividly as it should be. Maybe that's because the music was, on its surface at least, so calm and inoffensive compared to the explosions set off by Elvis, just before the period, and by the Beatles, just after.
And it's true that watching Ochs perform in vintage footage, you might mistake this figure, with his sport coat and floppy hair, for a nice, polite young man. But in songs like "Draft Dodger Rag" and "Talking Birmingham Jam," he fearlessly confronted searing issues of his time, even as his crystalline vibrato and the gentleness of his sarcasm suggested that there was a sensitive guy underneath the bitter topicality.
Ochs' topicality is probably one reason he's somewhat obscure these days. He wrote with such specificity about current events that his songs can seem like historical artifacts. He and Dylan even fell out over the issue of topical songwriting. The inscrutable Minnesotan grew introspective as Ochs railed against politicos in songs like "We Seek No Wider War." He also was a committed activist, organizing protests and helping establish the Yippies.
As the 1960s ended and the Vietnam War wound down, Ochs, plagued by mental illness and alcoholism, descended into chaos. He stopped writing. All these years later, Baez and others look very sad as they describe his desperate end.
If I have any complaint about the film, it's that it moves so quickly through the 1960s, from Greenwich Village to Dallas to Memphis. But maybe at an hour and 37 minutes, that's unavoidable. They were hectic times. With his passion and promise, and with his tragedy, Ochs embodies them all too well.