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MOVIE REVIEW

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

The highs and lows of a defiant folk singer

Phil Ochs performing during a Vietnam moratorium demonstration outside the UN Building in New York City in 1967. Phil Ochs performing during a Vietnam moratorium demonstration outside the UN Building in New York City in 1967. (Michael Ochs)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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The short, triumphant, tragic career of Phil Ochs illustrates one of the harder lessons of American popular culture: that audiences are moved far more by mystery than by commitment. Of all the artists of the 1960s folk-music boom, only Bob Dylan understood that in his bones, and only Dylan became a superstar. Ochs, by contrast, was the bright class president of the Greenwich Village scene, reeling off powerful, didactic protest songs in an earnest tenor. He was direct and defiantly uncool, and it doomed him.

“Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune,’’ a documentary by Kenneth Bowser that opened at the Coolidge Corner last Friday, is a mostly clear-eyed memorial to the artist that captures the highs and lows of Ochs’s life. Since the singer was increasingly manic-depressive, the highs are very high and the lows are mortifying. The film is ultimately sympathetic to this lost boy — it’s coproduced by Michael Ochs, Phil’s brother and a renowned rock photo archivist — but many larger observations about the times and the culture go unexplored.

Here’s a niggling question: If Dylan hadn’t existed, would Ochs have filled the void? He was handsome, he was topical, he wrote songs at a blinding clip. In early concert footage, you can see Ochs plug right into the righteous energy of folk audiences and the growing counterculture with songs like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore’’ and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.’’ He seemed like Pete Seeger’s best boy.

Ochs was ambitious, too, announcing as early as 1960 his intention to be the greatest songwriter in the country. (He modified that to second-greatest after hearing Dylan.) The first half of “There But for Fortune’’ is a warmly nostalgic remembrance of the days when the Village folk scene was small and personal — when “Bob and Suze would come around and play’’ in Ochs’s apartment, a scene in itself. The songs tackled the day’s injustices in unadorned poetry. Songwriter Van Dyke Parks describes the artist’s work as “unequivocal, determined, precise, literate — already filled with rage.’’

So what happened? The collapse of both Ochs’s ambition and his idealism happened. The latter is the documentary’s sub-theme, as the social hopes of the early 1960s are slowly ground down by a wave of political assassinations and escalation in Vietnam. The police beat-downs at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago proved ruinous to Ochs’s psyche. Everything about his persona — the direct gaze, the supple, yearning voice — was predicated on the notion that change was gonna come, and Chicago ’68 brutally insisted otherwise. Says one acquaintance, “Phil was a big enough egomaniac to take it all personally.’’

He also never recovered from the marginalization of folk after Dylan went electric and the culture followed. Other artists had a knack for staying a step ahead of the times; Ochs had a knack for seeming out of step. While the pop charts were full of jangly folk-rock bands, Ochs was discovering chamber pop with 1967’s “Pleasures of the Harbor.’’ When he tried irony —dressing up in a gold Elvis suit on the cover of the sardonically titled “Greatest Hits’’ (1970) — he was mocked.

The final years are grim indeed, and “There But for Fortune’’ marshals an array of famous faces — Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Sanders of the Fugs — looking the other way from Ochs’s drinking and increasing mania. By the mid-1970s, he was announcing from the stage that “Phil Ochs no longer exists, so what you’re seeing here is an illusion.’’ Film footage from the era shows him fat, dissolute, and raving on the street. Ochs was dead well before he hung himself in early 1976.

Bowser’s film judges the legacy unblinkingly. “He was as famous as he should have been,’’ says fellow folkie Judy Henske. “Much of his stuff was too involved for the common man.’’ At the same time, “There But for Fortune’’ mourns the passing of both a time when people cared and a singer who cared too much.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

PHIL OCHS: There But for Fortune

Written and directed by: Kenneth Bowser

Starring: Phil Ochs, Michael Ochs, Sean Penn, Christopher Hitchens, Tom Hayden

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 97 minutes

Unrated (as PG, brief language)

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