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After 20 years’ work, Ken Bowser‘s doc about ’60s folk singer Phil Ochs opens in six cities Friday, with a little help from Sean Penn and Spider-Man producer Michael Cohl.
“I started shooting Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune on my own time and my own dime,” says Bowser, the triple Emmy-nominated director of films on Preston Sturges and Frank Capra and five Saturday Night Live docs. “People kept asking, ‘Why do you want to make a movie about a dead folk singer?'” But Ochs, the half-mad singer of rabblerousing anthems like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” has plenty of fans long after his 1976 suicide, like Sean Penn — who once planned to star in an Ochs biopic and says in the film Ochs inspired him to be an actor — Eddie Vedder; Michael Cohl, who helped fund the mllion-dollar project; Christopher Hitchens; Wilco; and Billy Bragg, who calls him “the philosophical songwriter Bob Dylan should’ve been.”
“In January at IFC in New York, it was the highest-grossing film in the U.S. on one screen [$18,211],” says Bowser. “Phil would’ve loved it. He was a crazed movie fan.” Movie-star handsome until bipolar illness, booze and failure ruined him, Ochs spurned the Christopher Jones role in 1968’s Wild in the Streets. Tuesday night’s Grammy Museum Q&A for the film attracted star power: Ochs’ pal Tom Hayden; Jeanne Tripplehorn; Arthur Gorson, producer of Ochs and Guillermo del Toro; and Amy Irving (Bowser’s wife). The Hollywood Reporter’s reviewer raves the film, which will expand to 68 cities and possibly as many as 100.
Arguably a bigger egomaniac than Dylan, Ochs plunged into the era’s political turmoil, which Dylan fled for artistic independence and money. When times changed and sales tanked, Ochs went insane, claiming to be one John Train, who’d killed Phil Ochs and was merely borrowing his body. Why John Train? “Some say it’s a Merle Haggard reference,” says Bowser.
Ochs’ fall occurred when megaplatinum albums displaced modest-selling political music. “It’s not unlike what happened in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls [Bowser’s adaptation of Peter Biskind‘s best-selling ’70s movie history],” says Bowser. Just as blockbusters Jaws and Star Wars killed the ’70s indie revolution of Scorsese et al., when Frampton came alive, Ochs’ career died. Bowser’s next film adapts Biskind’s ’80s film history, Down and Dirty Pictures.
Neil Young once said he was inspired “by Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan — in that order.” In the film, Penn says, “I imagined he was the hero of his own movie.” He is now.
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