Kenneth Bowser’s engrossing documentary about counterculture folk singer and political activist Phil Ochs takes in a wide swath of social history. Ochs rose to prominence in the 1960s folkie New York scene at the same time as Bob Dylan (whom he idolized) and Joan Baez.
Unlike the more user-friendly warblings of popular groups like “The Kingston Trio,” Ochs’s music, which included songs like “Draft Dodger Rag” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” were scabrous and far more limited in their popular appeal.
He was an original working in the narrow niche of political protest songs who nevertheless thought his music would be as popular as Dylan’s – or Elvis’s. He even dressed up in an Elvis-style gold-lamé suit for the cover of a 1970 “Greatest Hits” album, even though none of his songs had ever cracked the Top 40. It was a joke, of course, but Ochs was also deadly serious, and ultimately delusional, about his appeal.
The wave of political assassinations only darkened his mood. In 1976, at 35, he killed himself. Many of the interviews in the film – conducted with everyone from family members to Christopher Hitchens and Tom Hayden – look to be 10, even 20, years old. Together they concoct a complex portrait of an ultimately unknowable man. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)