Phil Ochs was Bob Dylan’s chief rival as a Folk-based protest singer in the 1960s — Christopher Hitchens, interviewed in this documentary, maintains Ochs was better, more politically pointed and with a more sarcastic and thought-provoking lyrical bite. But while Dylan went electric and became a Rock & Roll star, Ochs struggled with the transition to Pop, although his first ambitious attempt — a heavily orchestrated album called Pleasures of the Harbor — had astonishing variety and great beauty.
Ochs, a good-humored idealist who studied journalism at Ohio State, idolized President Kennedy at first but grew ever more radicalized at the outrages of the 1960s and early 1970s (the assassinations, Vietnam, civil-rights turmoil, Watergate). He also had personal demons — alcohol and depression, especially. This all led to him working against his best interests career-wise and fading from public view. After all sorts of misfortunes in the 1970s, he committed suicide in 1976 at age 35.
This documentary by Ken Bowser, produced by Ochs’ brother Michael, moves at a fast clip but gives due to all the facets of Ochs’ career and life, both the tragic and triumphant. And it does delve into what he did in the 1970s, away from the limelight, when he was struggling. The variety of archival footage, including performances, is impressive, as is the lineup of those who wanted to be interviewed about Ochs: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Sean Penn and more (but not Dylan).
There are times when the film tries to be a primer on the politics of the era and loses track of its subject, but it always returns. It also makes a pretty good case for the music Ochs recorded after Pleasures — his derided-at-the-time attempts at flat-out Rock and even County. Grade: B