Aspiring to Musical Power and Glory

To say that the 1960s folk singer Phil Ochs dreamed big is to understate the huge scope of his ambition. As recalled in Kenneth Bowser’s respectful, nonmaudlin documentary portrait, “Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune,” Ochs moved to New York in the early ’60s intending to be the best songwriter in the country. After meeting Bob Dylan, Ochs was forced to revise his opinion of his own potential to “second best.”

Even before Ochs discovered folk music and left-wing politics through Jim Glover, his fellow student at Ohio State University, he was in the thrall of larger-than-life cultural symbols, from Elvis Presley to western movie stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, who embodied the concept of a world-saving hero. Not coincidentally, the folk music movement in its early days had the same messianic sense of its own importance.

The Dylan-Ochs connection, however friendly, had its tormenting underside. While Ochs worshipped Mr. Dylan (who is not interviewed in the film), his idol refused to pay him much respect. Ochs’s typical songs were specific topical commentaries gleaned from poring over newspapers and magazines. Even when Mr. Dylan was addressing current events, he remained suspicious of politics as a songwriting platform and soon moved on to become the superstar that Ochs wanted desperately to be....

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