'Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune,' a great documentary about an underappreciated folk singer

Phil-Ochs-folkThe story told by the new documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is a very sad one, no question about it. Ochs was one of the 1960s’ greatest folk singers and activists to those in the know, but he never got as much fame as he desired or deserved. He died by his own hand in 1976, and as the film proceeds through his life’s work, you know all along where it’s heading.

Before reaching that inevitably tragic conclusion, filmmaker Kenneth Bowser (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) does an admirable job of conveying why Ochs’ music continues to mean so much to his fans. Friends and fellow radicals like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Tom Hayden give illuminating interviews, as do latter-day admirers like Sean Penn, Billy Bragg, and Christopher Hitchens. They help explain exactly what made Ochs great — his unresting commitment to social justice, his genuine belief that songs could change the world, and of course his songs themselves. But you don’t have to take their word for it. Bowser has unearthed who knows how many hours of unseen footage, including clips in which Ochs sings “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “There But for Fortune,” “Changes,” “Crucifixion,” “I’m Going To Say It Now,” and more. These alone make the film a must-see for fans like me.

Bowser doesn’t shy away from Ochs’ battles with mental illness and alcoholism. The film’s honest depiction of Ochs’ final years can be hard to watch; by the end of a press screening last night, I was tearing up. But I’m absolutely glad I saw this movie, and I think any fan would feel the same. It’s an essential portrait of an artist who ought to be far better known.

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune opens Jan. 5 in New York City. Any Ochs fans out there looking forward to seeing the film? Let us know in the comments.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix)

More from EW.com:
Remembering Phil Ochs (2008)

Comments (15 total) Add your comment
  • Irwin

    Big Ochs fan. Saw him many times in 60’s and early 70’s. Hard-hitting champion of justice. Lot of love at his memorial concert in MSG after he took his life. Can’t wait to see this film as it’s about time he got his dues!

  • Gary

    This is great news. I still listen to Phil everyday.He was a genius writer and never got the admiration he deserved-outside of a small circle of friends. His anti-war songs are legend.His later,more personal songs are some of the best lyrics ever written or sung…Pleasures of The Harbor,The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns,The Dollhouse, Rehearsals for Retirement,Tape from California. I hope this documentary brings many new fans Phil’s way.Phil was his own man and his song’s aren’t like anyone else’s.I cannot wait to see this documentary.

  • Blue Desert

    This is great news for all Phil Och’s fans. He was a master singer/sonwriter in the 60’s and 70’s but was always overshadowed by Bob Dylan. Phil’s anti-war songs are legendary. Even better are his more personal songs from later in his career. These are some of the best songs ever written in any genre-Pleasures of The Harbor, The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns,Tape From California,The Dollhouse,Rehearsals For Retirement. Outside of Phil’s small circle of fans-many people are not aware of him and his massive talent.Hoefully this docu will change that forever.

  • topazbean

    I’m 23 and became a big Ochs fan after I discovered him on Pandora. I listen to him daily and I think a lot of his words and anger about the state of the world still have a huge amount of relevance. It’s a shame he isn’t picked up more often.

    • Anne McMenamin

      So good to hear younger people listening to Phil. In some ways it is the shame of our generation that so many of his songs are still so relevant.

      • jimbo

        Well put, Anne! I am looking forward to the movie. Too bad Sean Penn never stepped up to performing the role of a Phil bio, giving him the fame his ideas and life are due. Great to see that this genuinely committed man is still respected today.

  • lmorgan923

    Phil Ochs was a great songwriter. I’m glad to see him getting the recognition he deserved, but didn’t get, during his too-short lifetime. There But For Fortune is such a great statement of how we should all look at people who have been less fortunate than we have. I wish more people would adopt it as their personal code. “There but for fortune go you or I.” We forget how blessed we are.

  • Anne McMenamin

    Is there a DVD? We want to see the film in Australia. National Folk Festival at Easter would be a good place.

  • Laya

    I am so looking forward to January 5th. I was lucky enough to see Ochs twice in person but unfortunately the last time he was so drunk he couldn’t remember the words and left the stage so early.
    I still love and admire the man and I still listen to him all the time.

  • Bob1217

    Huge Phil Ochs fan. Would love to see this movie but alas it will never show around where I live so I will have to wait until it comes out in DVD.

  • Ed Gerstein

    I can’t wait until January 5th. I must have seen him 15 times either in Concerts or rallies. I was at the Washington Square rally celebrated the War is over and saw Phil in early May of 1975 in Central Park with Joan Baez when the war really did end.

    • jimbo

      I’m jealous that you saw him in person. He affected me greatly, and through me he affects my students (I hope). thanks for sharing.

  • don lapeau

    I’ve always wondered if the attack Phil suffered in Africa was
    actually an unsuccessful early attempt at something he (sadly) later succeeded at.
    But this tribute and examination is long overdue.His compelling music and spirit never diminish in power; truly one of a kind.

  • jimbo

    Phil taught me so much. Listening to him in the 60’s and 70’s I learned the language of politics, of change. Where are those committed to the cause, the progressive ideas of today? Perhaps they have given birth to the new Phil, the one who rejects Islamic violence, i.e. the similar “Cannons of Christianity” as found in today’s Egypt. Hopefully, Phil lives. Certainly, his spirit endures as his actions did when he was singing “When I’m Gone.”

  • journalist

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