When I was in college, I was an exchange student in Russia for one semester. In my literature class that semester, the professor asked us if we could provide a good example of an American бунтар. This word — pronounced ‘bunt – AHR’ — is an interesting word in Russian, as it’s clearly derived from the Russian word for riot (бунт). The best translation of this word into English that I can come up with is ‘rebel’.
I was the only person in my class to come up with a name in that discussion. I said Phil Ochs. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the existence of a biography of him entitled Death of a Rebel, by Marc Eliot. (I picked up that book a little bit over two years later). Hell, at the time, I only knew a very small subset of his greater work. (For the record, I wasn’t even familiar with the song of his that I included in my list of songs to hear before you die at the time).
A biographical documentary on him was released last year, called There But For Fortune, which contains an amazing amount of archival footage, interviews with family and friends, and pretty much documents his life, beginning with him winning his first guitar with his college roommate on a bet over who would win the presidential election of 1960, and culminating in his decision to take his own life on April 9, 1976 at the age of 35.
If you have read the Marc Eliot book (above) and the other (better researched) biography of Phil Ochs (There But for Fortune, by Michael Schumacher, you’re not going to learn a whole lot from this movie that you didn’t already know from at least one of the books.
But the movie itself works in ways the books don’t, because we get to see film clips of Phil singing, talking about his works, and generally being Phil Ochs. I myself was struck by how much weight he had gained between a clip that was filmed around about 1975, compared with a clip from around 1965.
The movie was a beautiful homage. I’m guessing that somewhere between one-third and one-half of his overall musical library was presented, at least in part, at some point in the movie. While people often look at his body of work and respect the lyrics, or the folksiness, and the message, it becomes all too easy to forget that his voice was as much of a gift as his pen. Take this video for the song “No More Songs,” (which, sadly and/or ironically, is the last track on his last album from before he died):
If you have a passion for good music, and to know more about the people who create music like that, you have a duty to check out this movie.