'Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something': Film Review

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something
Greenwich Entertainment
For devoted fans only.
10/16/2020

Rick Korn pays tribute to the do-gooder zeal of the late songwriter.

Concert-video specialist Rick Korn puts his cards on the table when he begins his first documentary feature with quotes like "Harry Chapin was one of the greatest storytellers of all time": No savvy viewer will expect the film that follows to contain much beyond praise. Focusing as much on the singer-songwriter's humanitarianism as his music, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something does offer a pretty good picture of Chapin's formative years, spent among lefty creative types in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn. The narrative gets a little fuzzier after fame arrives, and one suspects that a couple of TV docs made years ago were just as informative. Still, fans looking for an inspirational portrait of idealism will probably respond warmly to a film whose release is timed to World Food Day (October 16), a United Nations effort to highlight the cause nearest to Chapin's heart.

Unsurprisingly, given that it's produced by two family members and features many more in interviews, the doc feels very sturdy when discussing origins: Harry was one of six sons raised by a mother who mostly had to fend for herself — his father, a jazz drummer, left early on, and his eventual replacement is described as a "storybook evil stepfather." But the extended family had deep intellectual roots (in this superlative-happy doc, even Chapin's grandfather is "reputed to be the most brilliant man in America"), and the boys were raised to value creativity over more ordinary ways of making a living.

So it's natural that, after a formative encounter with a Weavers LP, three of the boys joined the folk revival as The Chapin Brothers. That unit didn't last long, and (after a stint making documentaries) Harry wound up performing as a solo act, opening for his more musically proficient brothers for a run of shows at the Village Gate.

Korn traces an unlikely path to success, in which a floundering solo artist assembled a band that would complement his emotional story-songs. After getting great press in 1971, he became the object of a bidding war between record labels. Jac Holzman of Elektra won the war, with what the film reports was the biggest record deal ever at the time.

Though it offers many performance clips and interviews with other artists (Billy Joel, Pat Benatar and left-fielder Darryl "DMC" McDaniels), the movie isn't very interested in the specifics of Chapin's career. It gets across the nature of his appeal, points out the role Chapin's wife Sandy played in his songwriting, and then offers a surprisingly long montage of clips from contemporary sitcoms to demonstrate how their composition "Cat's in the Cradle" has become a pop-culture signifier of father/son regret.

Most of its midsection focuses on Chapin's relationship with Catholic priest Bill Ayres (not to be confused with the Weather Underground member), who helped inspire the charitable efforts that would consume him. The two launched several initiatives aiming to wipe out hunger and poverty worldwide, and Chapin's zeal was equal to their grand mission statements.

However commendable his passion was, Chapin had no patience for attempts to steer him toward the most efficient fund-raising efforts. He said yes to any benefit he was asked to play, regardless of how much money it was likely to make. Manager Ken Kragen (who would later help make "We Are the World" happen) compares his efforts to those of another Kragen client, Kenny Rogers, who could raise as much for charity with a single well-organized concert as Chapin did in a year.

The word "martyr" comes up at least once here, and Chapin's early death in a car crash sealed that reputation. Korn devotes an unreasonably long time to the story of that crash and its impact on loved ones, wallowing in sentimentality when he could instead be moving on to the nuts-and-bolts of organizations Chapin left behind, like WhyHunger. The fact that this and other Chapin philanthropies are still going, nearly a half-century after he started them, is more inspiring than any testimonial from a celeb or politician.

Production company: Korn/Baron
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Director-Screenwriter: Rick Korn
Producers: Rick Korn, S.A. Baron, Jason Chapin
Executive producers: David Boxenbaum, Sandy Chapin, Charlie Cohen, David Miller
Director of photography-Editor: S.A. Baron

93 minutes