While Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are the singer-songwriters most associated with the 1960s folk movement, filmmaker Kenneth Bowser presents a persuasive case that Phil Ochs was a more hardcore political agitator than any of them. His film opens Wednesday, 5 January, through First Run Features.
Bowser charts the subject's life and career via an expertly assembled wealth of archival news and performance footage. Further insight comes from interviews with contemporaries including Baez, Seeger and Tom Hayden, and admirers such as Sean Penn, Billy Bragg and Christopher Hitchens.
But despite its personal focus, one of the broader strengths of the documentary is its probing analysis of the protest movement, from civil rights through Vietnam. The film is more illuminating in this overview than in its intimate details of the unraveling of Ochs' life through manic depression, schizophrenic tendencies and alcoholism. But that arguably is less a shortcoming than an inevitable reflection of the unknowable path of bipolar disorder.
Without pushing the thesis too hard, Bowser suggests that Ochs' downward spiral was part of his crushing sense of general disillusionment. That descent began with the Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinations and the 1968 DNC riots in Chicago, and continued through the Kent State shootings and political rise of Richard Nixon.
His brother and manager Michael Ochs (one of the film's producers) calls the Vietnam War "the last dragon to be slain," and Phil Ochs' dark mood during what should have been a celebratory "War is Over" concert in Central Park indicates his frustration with the movement's failings.
Whether it was the intention of Bowser's narrative, a parallel emerges between the 60s and present-day America in the painful transition during President Obama's term in office from hope and idealism to the current disenchantment and bitter divisiveness.
While Dylan, whose approval Ochs sought and seemingly never got, achieved fame with poetic anthems like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They are a Changin'," Ochs' songs spoke forcefully and directly to racial injustice, political oppression and the horror of war, to the struggles of striking miners and beleaguered unions. He was equally vocal against right-wing rigidity and liberal complacency. The firebrand nature of much of his work perhaps explains its lack of mainstream recognition.
Ochs' songs provide a stirring soundtrack throughout the film, perhaps nowhere more so than in the closing section, as details of his final weeks are underscored by "Jim Dean of Indiana." It's fitting that such a haunting ode to one iconic American hero should serve to pay tribute to another.