Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
"Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" plays Monday, January 23, at 10 pm EST/PST on PBS American Masters. It will thereafter be available via PBS On Demand, and is currently on Netflix Instant and DVD.
"Mistakes are lodged like harpoons and fish hooks in an intelligent person's soul," says one friend of political folk singer Phil Ochsof the deep depression that eventually led him to suicide in 1976. Och's friends are like that, eloquent and insightful. His mentor Pete Seeger, in particular, speaks like he sings, modulating his voice to give anecdotes a mythic luster and heartbreaking resonance. But after watching "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" take a measure of the man's adult life, it seems that some friends put too much emphasis on generic therapist's reasons for his downward spiral -- schizophrenia, alcoholism, declining popularity. It seems that Phil Ochs' fall was inevitable, given the fact that his singing career began when he was barely out of his teens, when JFK's assassination was a couple years off, and crashed after every progressive movement for which his protest songs provided spiritual fuel was crushed.
This is not a standard pop star rise-and-fall story. Ochs was physically involved in the antiwar and social justice movements he sang along with. He headlined, organized and even spontaneously showed up at a staggering number of rallies for various causes. His investment was evident in his performances, presented here with shocking audiovisual fidelity. Even though it's captured on a black-and-white kinescope, a performance of his song "When I'm Gone" feels as clear and urgent as a live event. So, too, is his strumming and crooning at the 1964 Newport Music Festival. (Simply amazing sound and image restoration here.) The sonorous voice and wide, earnest eyes could just as easily belong to a Wall Street occupier serenading Zuccoti Park.
Here I was all set to go Elitist on the country singer Lee Greenwood, and I pulled the rug out from under myself. I shared Rachel Maddow's incredulity that the limping duck George W. Bush had appointed Greenwood to the National Council of the Arts. I even had my first two sentences written in my head: "Remember how the Bush takeover squad at the White House complained the Clintonites had unplugged all the PCs on their way out the door? As he steadfastly marches toward his own sunset, it is Bush himself who seems unplugged."
Zing! Totally unfair, but snappy, Bush had two vacancies to fill on the NCA, one for three years, one for six. Greenwood got the six-year term. He'll be the gift that keeps on giving every day during Obama's first term. The Council's job is to advise the National Endowment for the Arts on how to spend its money. I assume Greenwood will support the endowment's Shakespeare in American Communities Initiative, but you can never be sure about those things.
Da-ding! I was just getting warmed up. I was going to sympathize with Bush because fate has set a limited table for conservatives in the arts department. Liberals get Paul Newman, conservatives get Chuck Norris. We get Bruce Springsteen, they get Cousin Brucie. Does such a thing as a conservative dancer even exist? To be sure, Greenwood was a member of a dance ensemble, but that was when he was nine. Look at Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic party, who was a philosopher, author, architect, violinist , inventor, sketch artist and culinary expert, and still found the time to found another branch of the family. JFK told an assembly of U.S. Nobel Prize winners: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." I imagine George whispering to Laura: "Why didn't anyone want to eat with him?"
TORONTO -- Pete Seeger was standing in the corner of the big dressing room, playing a tune on his recorder. Fred Hellerman was planted on a chair, listening. "It's an old Japanese air," Seeger said, putting down his recorder.
TORONTO, Canada - Joy Bang told me to meet her at her place, over at the Strip above a boutique, and when I got there she was being towed along the sidewalk by a large dog named Tai, which meant, she said, "dog" in a language I didn't catch.
NEW YORK -- They said making a movie about Woodstock was like . . . three days without sleep. The cameramen all wired together, with Wadleigh shouting instructions over the earphones. And Don Lenser crying during the Airplane's set, crying because he was right there on top of them, he practically had his camera shoved down Grace Slick's neck, he was practically in her mouth, and all that noise pounding through him, surrounded by banks of loudspeakers - big mothers! - and crying, you could hear him crying over the earphones, crying because he wasn't able to move because he had to hold the goddam camera steady...