Big Screen Berkeley: Phil Ochs There But for Freedom

Phil Ochs.

I’m a music lover. I’ve caterwauled in front of many a microphone, avoided countless nightclub two-drink minimums, and spent far too much money on records (and, grudgingly, CDs, but that’s another story). And I’m catholic in my taste: if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, chances are I’ll give it an eighty. Which, perhaps, explains why there are two types of music I generally don’t like: heavy metal and folk. The tuneless macho bluster of metal (hello Led Zeppelin) and the tasteful harmonizing and acoustic plucking of folk (hello Kingston Trio) are as nails on a chalkboard to me.

Which brings me, of course, to Phil Ochs, the subject of a superb new documentary, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, currently playing at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. (The film opened last Friday, but due to my coverage of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I’m reviewing it now.) Even folk-hating philistines such as myself will find it a deeply moving and illuminating experience — and if they’re not careful, they might even end up enjoying some of the music.

Born in Texas and raised in Ohio, Ochs relocated to Greenwich Village in 1962 and immediately became a hit on the coffeehouse circuit. Deeply influenced by Woody Guthrie and folk revivalist Bob Gibson, his early recordings — including the anti-war anthem I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore — were routine examples of left-wing American folk music. By 1967, however, Ochs felt trapped in New York City and moved to California, where he hoped to achieve a modicum of mainstream success via a new contract with A&M Records.

As deeply committed to social change as ever, Ochs was more than willing to pick up the ‘spokesperson of a generation’ mantle Bob Dylan so desperately wished to shuck off. As beautifully arranged and exquisitely performed as his A&M sides were, however, it was not to be: while the more ‘difficult’ Dylan ironically achieved frequent top 40 success, Ochs’ records never so much as sniffed the pop charts.


Ochs lost his focus after a 1972 assault in Tanzania robbed him of his full vocal range. He developed mental problems, began drinking heavily, and committed suicide in 1976. Some of the film’s most moving moments come at the end via tragic footage of an end-of-his-tether, schizophrenic Ochs wandering the streets of New York drinking hooch and claiming to be someone named John Butler Train.

Director Kenneth Bowser masterfully blends a wealth of interview material with family members, friends, and colleagues — including producer Van Dyke Parks, Elektra Records boss Jac Holtzman, ageless Fug Ed Sanders, and political activist Tom Hayden — with an astonishing selection of performance material. It’s hard to believe someone had the foresight to film Ochs on so many different occasions, but thank goodness they did: amongst the film’s highlights is an excerpt from his infamous, gold lamé Nudie suit-clad performance at Carnegie Hall, where (in fascinating parallel with Dylan’s experiences after going electric) a heckler can be heard shouting ‘Bring back Phil Ochs’.

I suppose this is the point where I’m supposed to confess my newfound respect for folk music. I must admit, though, that I much prefer Ochs’ later pop material to the acoustic tracks he recorded for Elektra: the uplifting orchestration of “The War Is Over” still trumps the stripped down urgency of “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”. Whether folk purist or card-carrying philistine, however, you’ll find much to admire in Phil Ochs: There But for Freedom, and I strongly recommend you make time for it before its Elmwood run comes to an end.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.