From a distance, Sly Stone and Phil Ochs couldn’t have less in common. Stone was a flamboyant, excess-prone sex symbol who took the pop world by storm; Ochs was a smart, big-hearted kid from Ohio who wrote elegant, topical folk songs and—like so many songwriters of his generation—fell into Bob Dylan’s long shadow and never really climbed out of it.
But the stories aren’t quite as disparate as they might seem: Both songwriters were obsessed with fame; both were idealists who took on the establishment; both disappeared too soon. And both artists deserve great documentaries: Ochs gets one; Stone most certainly does not, although both are screening at this week’s Reel Music film festival. Examining the two films side by side strikes at the heart of what’s wrong—and what’s right—with contemporary music documentaries. We decided to break it down.
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune
(2010, Kenneth Bowser)
Plot: Phil Ochs was the real-deal folk singer, if a complex individual, and the general fucked-upness of the ’60s literally drove him insane.
Tone: Honest, stylish and poignant. Though it features dozens of interviews, the film builds a complete narrative of the artist and his era, and has a cool scrapbook style throughout.
Best material: Candid archival audio interviews with the singer himself, which prove just how keen an intellect and just how self-aware an artist he was in his prime.
Biggest flaw: Could use a couple full-length Ochs songs, and maybe less Sean Penn (why is he here again?).
Verdict: Thoroughly enjoyable film and a haunting portrait of Ochs that puts music first but doesn’t discount the life behind the songs. You don’t need to know anything about the guy to appreciate this movie. 88
Coming Back For More(2010, Willem Alkema)
Plot: Sly Stone was a genius, and then he went into hiding. Now we must stalk him relentlessly and expose his sad, current-day existence!
Tone: Disjointed and sloppy with little visual style, poor sense of direction and an unnecessary focus on nerdy Dutch record collectors.
Best material: Sly Stone, adorned in Spider-Man pajamas in a hotel room and drinking Budweiser. That scene answers the “Whatever happened to Sly?” question.
Biggest flaw: As if the “searching for” plot weren’t tired enough, the filmmakers rarely challenge their interview subjects. And one has to wonder whether they paid Sly for their interview.
Verdict: One could make a fantastic 30-minute short out of this material, but as is, it’s a snoozer. Reel Music has better films this week (like The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi, at 7 pm Tuesday, Jan. 11). 32
GO: The NW Film Center’s Reel Music Festival 28 screens Friday-Tuesday, Jan. 7-18, at the Whitsell Auditorium, Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave. Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune screens at 7 pm Sunday, Jan. 9. Coming Back for More screens 7 pm Saturday, Jan. 8. Find a full schedule of movies at nwfilm.org. $9 general, $8 students and seniors.