Tuesday night I had the privilege of screening There but for Fortune, a documentary about folk legend Phil Ochs (ah the perks of working in an indie cinema!).
Admittedly, I did not know anything about Ochs before this film, which is a gigantic shame. From the same Greenwich Village scene as Bob Dylan, Ochs never quite got as much recognition for his work being in Dylan’s shadow.
As one interviewee in the film said, it was easy to like Dylan. Not so much with Ochs whose material cut right to the core of politic issues of the day, never holding back. (Not that Dylan held back… his lyrics just weren’t as… literal). Another interviewee mentioned at one point how Dylan couldn’t quite ever bring himself to praise Ochs’ work, for he felt it lacked emotion. Come on Zimmerman!
I’m very intrigued with Ochs’ oeuvre and plan on investigating it further. But I can tell you that as a person, or at least what this film showed of him as a person, I found him devastating. He seemed to give everything to his work. When he got on a stage with his guitar, no matter how scathing the words would be that spewed from his lips, he had such a sense of dignity and a boyish charm. I suppose the polite fashion of the day helped. And I don’t know whether this would be a compliment or an insult to Ochs, but if ever a biopic opportunity arose, I think Conor Oberst could easily portray him (definitely a compliment for Oberst).
Like I said, I approached this doc without any background info. There was a palpable sense of tragedy, so I knew he must’ve met an untimely end, but I was still somewhat shocked to learn that he had hung himself, especially at the mere age of 35. He looked so much older than 35 in the drunken footage. I find it heartbreaking how his talent could have flooded him so rapidly and then suddenly escape him, being replaced with mental illness, such a mysterious and terrifying plague. A fellow folkie from back in the day noted, while discussing Ochs’ demise, that perhaps a large part of his problem was how he turned his focus inward, rather than outward where so much of his material and passion had once been derived.
This is a must-see.