Academy Awards voters may be singing the tunes of Phil Ochs when the nominees for Best Documentary Feature are announced on January 25th. As previous winners “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “An Inconvenient Truth” have taught us, Oscar voters love a good political romp and that defines this year’s contender “Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune.”
The documentary (view trailer here) begins with a title card inviting us “to a party with music by Phil Ochs, singer of songs of protest, folk songs, and songs on current issues.” Immediately, we’re taken through the singer’s controversial life in the spotlight: from his humble beginnings as a folk singer trying to make it in the music business, to a full-fledged political activist, and finally to a broken man who committed suicide in 1976.
What starts out as a simple biography of Phil Ochs soon becomes so much more. “There But For Fortune” depicts America in 1960s, as seen through the eyes of a political musician. Whether it’s the Kennedy assassination, the war in Vietnam, political uprisings, or Nixon stepping down, Ochs had something to sing about all of it. Guiding the audience through the proceedings are friends, family, and celebrity admirers (including a brief cameo by Oscar winner Sean Penn). However, the true narrator of this story is Ochs himself. Dozens of his songs play throughout the documentary’s soundtrack, lending a moving personal touch from start to finish.
Director-producer Kenneth Bowser‘s careful craftsmanship ensures that Ochs gets the final word on every topic. The movie even opens with Ochs singing, “And you won’t find me singing on this song when I’m gone, so I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” If only he knew.