Judge Gordon Sullivan was planning a bus trip, but for fortune...er, loose change.
"There but for fortune, go you or I"
From the May 1963 release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to the June 1966 release of Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan was untouchable. Songs of every stripe, from love songs to kiss off songs and a whole host of political folk flowed from his pen. Six albums in three years was enough to establish his legacy, and no matter how many bizarre moves his career has taken since then, those records form the foundation for what has become his status as a cultural icon. For decades now each new singer-songwriter has had to contend with the possibility of being labeled "The New Dylan," and Dylan's supremacy as an artist has made it difficult to remember that he actually had contemporaries. Not only did he have contemporaries, but fellow artists who (at least early on) looked like they could give Dylan a run for his folk-singer money. One of those artists was Phil Ochs, and Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune hopes to shed some light on this generally forgotten folkie.
Phil Ochs was part of the same Greenwich Village folk scene that gave us The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, and Richie Havens, where he was known for writing a prolific batch of songs that were largely informed by the news of the day. Despite writing a number of protest-song classic s ("I Ain't a Marchin' Anymore" and "Love Me I'm a Liberal"), Ochs' star waned in the late 1960s and he succumbed to alcoholism and mental illness, eventually hanging himself in 1976. There But for Fortune traces his life via audio clips, archival footage, and interviews with friends, family, and his admirers.
As I hope my introduction makes clear, it's really easy to talk around Phil Ochs by discussing Bob Dylan, or the Greenwich Village folk scene, or even the anti-Vietnam War movement. It's a little less easy to talk about the man himself. Aside from his dramatic exit, Ochs' life had no strong, single narrative—he never won any awards, had a hit single, or engaged in any derring do. And yet, the eight studio albums and numerous live documents he left behind continue to inspire new songwriters with a passionate commitment to peace and political freedom. This inspiration, though, isn't quite enough to make There But for Fortune a great documentary.
Most musical documentaries have to keep several things balanced at once. The first is usually a biographical approach—the audience wants to know a bit about the history of the subject, like where and when he was born, etc. Second, there's usually some kind of context, like placing a musician with other similar musicians. Finally, there's usually some appreciation for the artist, either from admiring contemporaries or those more recently influenced by the person's work.
Despite a fascinating subject, There But for Fortune can't quite figure out how to juggle all these elements. On the biographical front, we learn a little about Ochs' childhood (with a distant mother and enrollment in a military academy), some about his folk years, and a bit about his eventual death. However, dates are not big thing in this film, and it can often be hard to track Ochs' personal chronology with what's going on in the wider culture to give it some perspective. Context is perhaps where the film is strongest, including a decent amount of interviews with Ochs' contemporaries along with archival footage and audio. With no complete interviews or performances, it's not always easy to get a sense of his times. Finally, the appreciation sections of There But for Fortune get really short shrift. Director Kenneth Bowser has gathered an impressive selection of Ochs' contemporaries (including Joan Baez and Pete Seeger) and his later admirers (like Jello Biafra and Billy Bragg), but they get precious little screen time to tell us why Phil Ochs still matters.
Although I have my qualms, There But for Fortune is not a bad documentary. With the exception of Bob Dylan (who rarely sits for interviews), Bowser has gathered just about every person one could want to see in a documentary about Phil Ochs. Several times I found myself thinking "Man, they really need to have X on here to talk about this" and in a minute or so, X would appear. I also appreciate how much Ochs got to speak for himself despite being dead; the film uses archival interviews to great effect. The film also uses live recordings of Ochs well. His studio records could sometimes come off as over-produced, and his life performances gave the songs the immediacy their "ripped from the headlines" subjects demanded. By choosing to go with live recordings more than studio cuts, Ochs' personality shines a bit brighter on this documentary.
On DVD, There But for Fortune gets a decent release. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer has a clean look during the contemporary interviews, and quality fluctuates slightly with the archival sources at other times. However, compression or other digital artifacts are not a significant problem. The 5.1 audio track sticks mainly to the center channel for the interviewees, but the stereo field opens up for Ochs' performances. Extras include a photo gallery and the director's biography. This may be the most disappointing aspect of the disc. Bowser got Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Christopher Hitchens, Billy Bragg, and Jello Biafra to all sit down in front of his camera. I find it very difficult to believe they all didn't have something more to say that didn't make it into the finished film. Or, how about a couple of complete performances of Ochs' songs to give newcomers an idea of his style? Nope, we only get a photo gallery and a bio.
There But for Fortune is a decent documentary on an important musical figure, but missing that certain something that would take it to the next level. It's certainly worth a rental for fans of 1960s folk or the protest movement, but the lack of compelling extras make it difficult to recommend anything more.
It's not perfect, but There But for Fortune is not guilty.
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