Phil Ochs Documentary, 'There But For Fortune,' Marches Across U.S.
Phil Ochs Documentary, 'There But For Fortune,' Marches Across U.S.

A documentary on '60s folksinger Phil Ochs that had a schedule of eight cities in January has expanded its run to 70 playdates and may eventually be booked into 100 theaters.

For a film that took 20 years to come together despite the interest of Hollywood names such as Sean Penn, it's a significant achievement for filmmaker Kenneth Bowser. "The distributor, First Run, had hoped for 15 major cities. After we went into the IFC [in New York] in January, we were hopeful it could be extended for a week. It played for six weeks and was replaced only because they were backed up with Oscar-related films."

"Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune" played in one or two cities at a time in January and February and was screened to a sold-out house at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles this week. On Friday the film opens in four Los Angeles area theaters before rolling out around the country in March, April and May. First Run is considering return engagements in certain cities later in the year.

The documentary, which cost close to $1 million to produce after nearly $600,000 was spent securing music and archival film rights, premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in the fall, where attendees sang along with several of the songs. "My hair stood up on end," said Bowser, whose credits include "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," "Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer" and a few "Saturday Night Live" compilations for NBC.

Audiences for the film have been packed with fans of Ochs from his heyday in the 1960s. Capable of posting reasonable sales figures for a folk singer -- one album moved 200,000 copies -- Ochs' career was intertwined with left-wing politics and lived in the shadow of Bob Dylan. As the film tells, he was a Midwesterner with a love of movies and American heroes, a college drop-out with a desire to perform folk music in Greenwich Village. He took up the role of journalist with a guitar, taking on war and politics in songs such as "I Ain't Marching Anymore," "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," "Santo Domingo," and "The War Is Over." Later, he would expand his musical palette to include classical influences on albums such as "Pleasures of the Harbor."

In the film, Penn, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, Hayden and others discuss Ochs' political idealism and the effect of his songs on the civil rights and anti-war movements. Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss speak about Ochs as a recording artist. Holzman let Ochs out of his contract after releasing his first two studio albums and a live disc starting in 1964; Ochs inked with A&M after moving to Los Angeles. Ochs, a heavy drinker who suffered from depression, committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35.

"I have come to feel that part of the reason the audience eats it up is that [Ochs' life] represents the collective failure of their youth," said Bowser, who saw Ochs perform twice. "This was a generation that aspired to change the world, that came to have clout and power and was then kicked to its knees. Phil represents some aspect of that lost hope."

"There But For Fortune," named for one of Ochs' songs that Baez had success with, began in earnest when Bowser approached Ochs' brother, music historian Michael Ochs, about doing a documentary. About seven years ago, after Bowser had a few films under his belt, he started to finance the film on his own and shot interviews.

Two years ago, concert promoter and former Live Nation executive Michael Cohl stepped with an offer to help to finance the picture.

"I said, 'This is not the Rolling Stones'," Bowser said, a reference to the band Cohl is most famous for promoting. "He said, 'That's OK. Phil played my club in Toronto and I'd like to help you make the film."

Cohl's cash helped them finish the film, although Bowser was still interested in securing footage of Ochs toward the end of his life when his behavior was considerably erratic. A filmmaker had rejected Bowser's request for some footage of Ochs talking conspiracy theories while wandering in a New York City street.

"Phil's daughter Megan called for us and he said he had changed his mind and sent it to her five or six years earlier," Bowser recalled. "He said he had mailed it to her apartment in Hollywood, so she went back to her old place, got the names of people who lived there after her and tracked down the guy who would have had the package. He was in San Jose and he had the package waiting for her. That's the miracle of found footage."