This documentary film chronicles American "topical" singer Phil Ochs' life and career from 1960-1976, the turbulent years that witnessed his greatest influence and success, and ended with his suicide at age 35. Known for his political activism, sardonic humor, and distinctive voice, Ochs was a counterculture icon during the Vietnam era, his songs taking aim at the war, civil rights, labor struggles, and other key social issues of the day. While the film celebrates Ochs' impact on the 1960s through footage of his performances before live audiences, it also carefully describes the last six years of the singer's life as he declined into alcoholism and increasingly suffered from bi-polar disorder.
The folk-protest music movement most closely associated with Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez was an outgrowth of the folk music genre that began the 1950s, with groups such as The Weavers and The Kingston Trio. Despite his early prominence, however, Ochs' popularity was eclipsed by that of newer folk acts such as Peter, Paul, and Mary and The Chad Mitchell Trio, and by that of contemporaries whose stars rose faster. Dylan, in particular, was always Ochs' idol and competition. The film suggests that the pair were very close friends during their early days in Greenwich Village, where Dylan arrived in 1962 and Ochs in 1963, but that Dylan later became distant. Dylan's mid-decade shift toward personal songs and folk-rock enhanced his [End Page 72] popularity, and further distanced him from Ochs, who remained committed to topical folk-protest music.
Dylan is reputed to have told Ochs "You're not a protest singer, you're a journalist," who had, in fact, been a journalist in college. From the time he became a professional folksinger, however, he saw himself as a political agitator. The film shows Ochs drifting between the worlds of art and politics in his songs and concerts throughout the 1960s, but almost always having his most noteworthy successes performing at political protests and political rallies. The film uses Ochs' song "There But For Fortune" as its subtitle, but his most popular song was the explicitly political "I Ain't Marching Anymore," which is highlighted several times here in the filmed concerts. Ochs stepped, at mid-decade, into the vacuum created by Dylan's departure to become folk's premier political protest singer, though he reportedly preferred the label of "topical" singer, instead. In the late 1960s he tried to pump up his record sales by switching from Electra to A&M records and getting his brother, Michael, to manage him. Protest music's appeal was declining, however, and Ochs' record sales continued to slide.
The film effectively shows Ochs' increasing militancy, both in his songs and manner, as the Vietnam War dragged on through the late 1960s, into the administration of President Richard Nixon. It documents his increasingly critical song introductions at concerts, and his growing personal involvement in radical left-wing politics. In Chicago, during the 1968 Democratic Convention, he became a supporter of the new "Yippie" protestors led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and the film interviews both on Ochs' role in their movement.
By 1970, though, Ochs had, for the most part, given up on traditional politics and become morose about the American political system. His songs were increasingly satiric, a trend that culminated late that year when he released his last album, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, which was framed as parody. The album cover showed Ochs dressed in an Elvis-Presley-style gold-spangled suit and holding an electric guitar. Bowser's film shows him similarly dressed in a live concert, singing the album track "No More Songs," as an illustration of his despair. Ochs was, by now, in a double bind: he was clearly the most talented political songwriter of his era, but the audience for outright protest songs was declining, and his writing could not match the lyrical quality of Dylan and the new folk-rock artists who followed him, such as the Beatles, Randy Newman, and Don McLean.