Two documentary musical biographies are being released in Toronto this week, both artifacts of the pop-music big bang of the 1960s.
One film, Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, is a balanced portrait of the protest singer who died 35 years ago. The other film, Lemmy, is a tribute to the culture of excess.
The man born Ian Fraser Kilmister rose in the north of England in the wave of noisy bands such as The Who and The Kinks in the sixties and survived ingesting large volumes of amphetamines and alcohol while forging a sound emulated by thrash metal and punk musicians. Now he lives on as an eminence geezer of the Sunset Strip, hobnobbing with celebrities. There but for fortune, indeed.
Kenneth Bowser's well-researched Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune is a portrait of the singer who, in the early sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, was an alternative Bob Dylan - open and self-deprecating as opposed to cryptic and cool. Dylan famously once insulted him as a "journalist," though it was not a label Ochs avoided. He combed newspapers for ideas for songs and his first album, in 1964, was called All the News That's Fit to Sing.
With a warm, wavering vibrato, accompanied by acoustic guitar, Ochs was an engaging entertainer and gifted songwriter, both of didactic songs ( There but for Fortune, I Ain't Marching Anymore, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends) and such graceful ballads as Changes and Jim Dean of Indiana.
Ochs embraced the political causes of his time, and the film serves as a chronicle of the left in the sixties and early seventies, from the civil-rights movement to the Chilean coup. But the political turmoil, assassinations and backlash affected his emotional state. His friend, the journalist Lucian Truscott IV, recalls: "I think Phil was a big enough egomaniac to take it all personally." Ochs suffered from bipolar disorder (as did his father) and as his condition worsened in his 30s, he dried up as a songwriter, drank heavily, suffered from paranoia and in 1976 hanged himself at the age of 35.
There are lots of talking heads (Tom Hayden, Sean Penn, Christopher Hitchens, Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman) and revealing interviews with friends and family members, which offer a compassionate but not uncritical portrait of an artist whose creativity and vulnerability were inseparable from the political distemper of his era.
In Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's celebration of Motörhead bassist Lemmy, a long parade of rock folk with puffy hair and tattoos (Joan Jett, Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Bob Thornton, Slash and everyone from Metallica) take turns praising everything about their idol from his mutton chops and bullet belt to his uncompromisingly abrasive music.
Running at close to two hours, this parade of admiration is almost as exhausting as the experience of a Motörhead concert (which, back in my rock-reviewing days, I once compared to a pack of Dobermans attacking an electric lawnmower). We get a few doses of the music, including a jam session with the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl and a concert performance with Metallica. There's also a brisk Spinal Tap-like history of Lemmy's musical evolution, from the power-pop band the Rocking Vickers in the sixties through the seventies prog-rock band Hawkwind, on to the punk-metal crossover monster known as Motörhead.
At 65, still chain-smoking red Marlboros and swigging Jack Daniels, Lemmy, who has lived in a rent-controlled apartment off L.A.'s Sunset Strip for the past decade, comes across as good-humored but unforthcoming: He disliked his father; an early girlfriend died of a heroin overdose, which may explain his preference for sleeping around to settling down. The filmmakers go easy on his love of Nazi swords and swastikas ("I've had six black girlfriends," he says in his defence). And after four decades in the rock business, he's unburdened by regrets or introspection.
To what does he owe his longevity? "Survival," he says.
Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune
- Directed by Kenneth Bowser
- Classification: NA
- 3 STARS
- Directed by Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski
- Classification: 14A
- 2 STARS
Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune runs at Toronto's Bloor Cinema until Thursday; Lemmy is at Toronto's Royal until Tuesday.