Singing for Justice


The long-awaited documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune leaves nothing to be desired. Director Kenneth Bowser has the cooperation and collaboration of the Ochs family. Bowser also talks to people outside the circle of friends. Not that I wasn’t moved by seeing the greats of the folk world, but Bowser also interviews Jello Biafra (a figure with a lot in common with Ochs), Billy Bragg and Christopher Hitchens.

Forty songs by Ochs adorn the soundtrack, all reflecting the hopes and terror in the air of America in the 1960s. And in turn, this Zeitgeist harmonizes with the manic depression Ochs self-medicated with booze.

Just as Bowser doesn’t overpraise or underpraise Ochs, he’s also not rolling in the squalid side of the singer’s life. A figure this nakedly open wouldn’t have given much dirt to a Behind the Music documentary anyway. As the music, promoter Sam Hood says, “Phil was never cool. He exposed himself in a way that was ultimately lethal.”

Still, the first half-hour has something of the preaching-to-the-choir key to the folk era. The film’s connecting theme is Ochs’ scrapbooks; he considered himself a journalist, using songs as broadsides. The ever-shrewd Dave Van Ronk describes Greenwich Village songsmithing here as “the topical song movement.”

Some of that topicality is gone. Ochs’ late 1960s work was far more musically impressive. His “Pleasures of the Harbor” ought to be as well known as a song it rivals, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” The ragtime “Small Circle of Friends” may have been stimulated by something topical, the Kitty Genovese outrage. But the generous and angry spirit that sings here makes the song relevant, and shaming, today.

That spirit of course is needed now. Our 2011 crises of injustice and endless colonial war could have been addressed in Ochs’ lyrics: “Even treason might be worth a try – This country is too young to die.”

‘Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune’ opens with a filmmaker reception with Meegan Lee Ochs on Friday, March 18, at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. It also plays Tuesday, March 29, as part of the Rialto Film Festival at the Sixth Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.