Film Review: ‘Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something’

We could use a Harry Chapin in the world today, a gifted songwriter who can make adults cry with a touching lyric and also carry the torch of social activism in song and in daily life. Though there are a few dedicated troubadours scattered across the globe, you have to wonder if today’s world is too cynical and untrusting. Maybe I should just change that last sentence and take out the words ‘you have to wonder if.’ Because the last 40 years since Harry’s passing would make him shake his head. Undoubtedly though he would look for the positive, leap into action and continue living his motto of “when in doubt, do something.”

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That phrase is the message that frames Chapin’s life and provides the title for the documentary Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something, the story of a life well-lived until tragically cut short at the age of 38 in a fiery car crash on Long Island. Directed by Rick Korn, the 93-minute film, released virtually and in select cinemas today, details an altruistic person who was so giving of his time and talent to charitable causes that it almost became a detriment to the business side of his music, which didn’t faze him in the least.

A “citizen artist,” as politician/friend Mark Green notes, many casual listeners of Chapin’s beloved, classic story songs- “Cats In The Cradle,” “Taxi,” “Remember When The Music,” “WOLD” and “Circle”- probably don’t know the commitment he had to ending world hunger. Rather than just singing about it, he doubled down and lent his time and physical efforts, forming the grassroots organization World Hunger Year (now WHYHunger) with like-minded ally Bill Ayres, a Catholic priest and NYC radio personality. The two tirelessly pressured politicians on Capitol Hill in the ‘70s, including President Jimmy Carter, into addressing the serious and sadly never-ending issue of hunger. Musicians Bob Geldof and Kenny Rogers point to Chapin’s determinedness at finding a solution as inspiration for their own activism.

Write what you know is a songwriter’s mantra, and Harry lived that credo. “I use realities I know about to set me going and I try to make the song true to itself,” he says in an interview. His gift was finding the moral message in chronicling the ordinary and sometimes mundane lives of taxi drivers (which he was), radio DJ’s (with whom he developed great relationships) and the responsibility of being a father. Though “Cats In The Cradle,” his most enduring song, began life as a poem written by his wife Sandy, there’s no doubt the lyric’s message, massaged with Harry’s undeniably strong nursery rhyme-like vocal melody and chord pattern, hit home for the father of five. Especially when he wasn’t home, which was often, as conveyed in the doc by various members of his family.  

Chapin came from a large and competitive musical family in New York City, and his love of storytelling first took hold via his love of film. In fact, director Korn points out, the young storyteller was nominated for an Academy Award in 1968 for directing “Legendary Champions,” a documentary about early boxing legends. One wonders what suggestions the affable but strong-willed artist would have offered in telling the arc of his own life story in a documentary format.

After being kicked out of his first musical group, which also included his brothers Steve and Tom, Harry took it all in stride and worked on his songwriting craft. His film-like attention to detail in his lyrics led to a bidding war in the fertile singer/songwriter world of the early 1970’s, eventually signing with folk impresario Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records.

Documentaries like this demand vintage photos and videos, and there’s a treasure trove of it here to delight fans and musicians. Rare local TV performance clips, backyard parties, Capitol Hill speeches and a fascinating, running thread with footage of Harry speaking with eager and attentive high school students about the importance of social activism are some of the highlights.

Friends, family members and fans from all walks of life, including Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Harry Belafonte, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniel, Chicago’s Robert Lamm, bandmates Big John Wallace and Howard Fields, Ken Kragen, WHYHunger Executive Director Noreen Springstead and more contribute to the storyline with personal and revealing details of his life, including the high honor of Chapin receiving the Special Congressional Gold Medal in 1987, a posthumous recognition of his tireless efforts for social justice, awarded to him on what would have been his 45th birthday. Perhaps an induction into the esteemed Songwriters Hall of Fame is not far off.

In today’s cynical world, it’s easy to make fun of the cliche image of the well-meaning singer/songwriter. Deep down, though, it’s because there is truth in the message. That point is laid out in the montage describing the influence of “Cats In The Cradle,” a song title that has become a verb on its own in telling the circle of life tale of an un-attentive father whose son grows up in much the same way before coming to a self-realization of how quickly time slips away. Clips of TV shows (“Friends,” “The Simpsons,” “Modern Family”) and modern artists crying while singing or listening to the song convey its universal appeal. Even the toughest men and women are brought to their knees when a song hits home.

With all the affirmations of how giving and caring Harry was, cynics might feel there must be some dark underside to his personality. Surely, he must have yelled at the band for playing wrong notes or gotten mad at a WHY board meeting. But as Pat Benatar, who Chapin befriended and mentored early in her career, says “He was very selfless. This was genuine, authentic.  Anything anybody reads or hears about him are true.”

Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something premieres today. Producer/Director: Rick Korn/In Plain View Entertainment with Jason Chapin and S.A. Baron. Distributed by Greenwich Entertainment. 93 minutes.

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