Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something
2020, NR, 93 min. Directed by Rick Korn.
REVIEWED By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Oct. 23, 2020
When folk oracle Pete Seeger addresses mortals from the great beyond – in that Land of Canaan voice lodging in your upper chest – ears ten-hut like a hare’s. Congressional Gold Medals began minting in our country’s Declaration of Independence year and today only Irving Berlin, George Cohan, Aaron Copland, George & Ira Gershwin, and Frank Sinatra represent music in the company of George Washington, Rosa Parks, Ladybird Johnson, and 154 others. As the daddy of activist troubadours underscores, Harry Chapin’s inclusion on the list registers.
Since awards make a man no less than the color of his socks, Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something acknowledges the debt due the singer-songwriter (1942-1981) for No. 1 smash “Cat’s In the Cradle,” but moves swiftly beyond its pop culture transcendence – across politics (Andrew Cuomo), television (The Simpsons), movies (Eddie Murphy braying it in Shrek), and Johnny Cash – to reveal the Seventies storyteller’s cause for recognition by U.S. Congress.
As with recent Gordon Lightfoot summation If You Could Read My Mind, footage of Chapin throwing his expressive tenor into biting song realism goes a long way toward establishing the legend. So do Pat Benatar (“Shooting Star”), Graham Nash (“Sandy”), and Bruce Springsteen (“Remember When the Music”) in simply covering his songs. Likewise, another new rock doc survivor, Dave Marsh from Creem: America’s Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine, and even Run DMC’s Darryl “DMC” McDaniels speak unequivocally to Chapin’s fulfillment of the Seeger covenant, the latter stating, “Harry made it gangsta to do something about things that need something done for them.” The less said of Billy Joel’s well-meaning trucker testimony the better.
Beyond the musical C.V., however, the documentary trains its spotlight on the sprawling family from which its focus emerged in Brooklyn: four brothers, two half-brothers, and the two broken marriages that produced them, one involving a semi-famous jazz-drumming father. The Chapin Brothers (Tom, Harry, Steve) took root therein and from church in the Kingston Trio fashion of the day, and eventually booted their most famous and famously forceful breakout. Yet Harry’s destiny imprints on a series of Fifties family photos: square-jaw good looks, big smiling eyes, tan ambition and assurance.
He’s Kennedy-ian not only in appearance, but in the Chapins' upholding an East Coast intellectualism that turned white privilege into public service. Academy Award-nominated documentarian for 1968's The Legendary Champions, Peabody winner, and author of “Taxi,” Chapin soon abandons stardom to pursue lobbying Congress to stem world hunger. At that juncture, director Rick Korn traces a direct line between his subject, USA for Africa and Hands Across America, and Live Aid, Sir Bob Geldof himself passionately attesting to the latter influence.
Today, the Harry Chapin Food Bank endures, as does what Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something identifies as “Cat's In the Cradling” someone: guilting them into here-and-now action.
Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something is available now as a virtual cinema release..