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Review: 'Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune' Makes An Interesting Life Seem Average

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist January 8, 2011 at 3:02AM

Despite fan backlash at his decision to go electric, Bob Dylan has had it pretty good, especially by comparison. Any average Joseph on the street could tell you who he is and probably hum a tune or two, whereas his politi-folk peers were largely forgotten. Dylan was able to transcend; artists like Phil Ochs, subject of documentary "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune" by "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls" director Kenneth Bowser, were not so lucky and mostly forgotten. Labeled as the "anti-Dylan" not only for his radically different singing style but also for his penchant towards undisguised topical protest songs, something Mr. Zimmerman masked in poetry and eventually outright abandoned. Ochs didn't just sing about Vietnam or his distaste for politicians, he rallied; making activism just as important as his very vocalized opinion.
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Despite fan backlash at his decision to go electric, Bob Dylan has had it pretty good, especially by comparison. Any average Joseph on the street could tell you who he is and probably hum a tune or two, whereas his politi-folk peers were largely forgotten. Dylan was able to transcend; artists like Phil Ochs, subject of documentary "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune" by "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls" director Kenneth Bowser, were not so lucky and mostly forgotten. Labeled as the "anti-Dylan" not only for his radically different singing style but also for his penchant towards undisguised topical protest songs, something Mr. Zimmerman masked in poetry and eventually outright abandoned. Ochs didn't just sing about Vietnam or his distaste for politicians, he rallied; making activism just as important as his very vocalized opinion.

His action for change lead the man to do a plethora of avante-garde stunts and charity work, including an amusing yet powerful organized "War is Over" campaign in 1967 during the height of the Vietnam War. Throughout all of this he was not only a heavy drinker but also suffered from bi-polar disorder, a lethal combo which rendered him practically insane for a few months (even adopting a different persona) before finally committing suicide in April, 1976.


It's an intriguing life to say the least, with enough drama and happenings that would make a fairly decent Hollywood biopic (Sean Penn at one time expressed interest in playing Ochs). Bowser rustles together a solid line up of interviewees, fellow musicians and activists both past and present: Peter Seeger, Billy Bragg, Sean Penn, Chris Hitchens, etc, with Dylan unsurprisingly absent. Together they piece together his life story and it's a respectful tribute, that also utilizes news paper clippings, audio recordings, various video clips and stills.

So with a life chock full of such meaty, fascinating stuff, why does the documentary only conjure up a lukewarm response at best? Maybe it's the much too familiar structure, maybe it's the lack of personality. Bowser as a director is much like Bowser the Super Mario villain: the plumber would risk life and limb in three levels comprised of goofy/deadly creatures, with only the thought of saving the Princess at the fourth castle-level to keep him going. Of course she was never there as Bowser, the king of Koopas, had teased him along and put her in another castle. Director Bowser follows a similar workmanship for the structure of his movie: he builds up to a moment in Ochs's life and it's only a matter of time before he takes it away, depriving the audience of actually absorbing or appreciating the event. He's much too eager to get to the next segment instead of delving into whatever he is currently on.

The criticisms shouldn't be taken too negatively, though - the movie's not a disaster by any means. While he does shift focus too often, the documentarian also weeded out the less interesting things like Och's trouble in Argentina or his songwriting work for the Raquel Welch drama "Kansas City Bomber." A viewing of this movie brings to mind the recent "Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)" by "The US vs. John Lennon" director John Scheinfeld, a film that shares more than a few similarities in execution. What the latter had over it, though, was a very forthright love for its subject, one that could be felt not only through its interview sessions but through its general peppy disposition. 'Nilsson' followed the same structure as 'Fortune' but it wasn't glaring; it was overshadowed by its delightful nature. This also enables it to entice those who are unfamiliar with the artist, drawing them in with charm and converting them to fans; forcing the recent devotees to pillage iTunes/Pirate Bay for the Nilsson discography. 'Fortune' is much too straight-laced for its own good, and at its worst can be rather dull. Die-hard fans will of course find something to latch onto, casual fans may even be mildly entertained, but newbies aren't going to find much to chew on here. [C+]

This article is related to: Review, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune


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