Sing Your Song: Sundance Review

Sing Your Song - Film Still - Sundance Film Festival - 2011
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
There's a lot more to Harry Belafonte than "Day-o!" in this compelling socio-political assessment of the great entertainer's career as an activist.

PARK CITY -- The 2011 Sundance Film Festival got launched with the emotional charge of a political rally combined with the enthusiasm of a revival meeting at the screening of Susanne Rostock's "Sing Your Song," which views the extraordinary career of entertainer Harry Belafonte through the prism of his tireless social activism.

The film is less a true documentary that examines a noteworthy life than a call to action for viewers to emulate Belafonte's example of engaging with the world's problems and searching for solutions no matter how long-range they may be.

Belafonte put his considerable weight behind the project, his daughter is among the producers, and he is the source for many of its rich anecdotes so the film teeters on the brink of hagiography. What rescues it from self-aggrandizement is how the film functions as an extension of the Belafonte himself: The film catches a man who has spent a lifetime practicing what he preaches. He has put his butt on the line in Ethiopia and Haiti as well as Alabama and Mississippi.

Following more festival play, Sing Your Song looks like one of those films that can play on multiple platforms perhaps even simultaneously. Granted nothing quite equals the experience of the film on a big screen before a jam-packed festival crowd, yet Sing Your Song should pack a wallop even on a mobile phone.

The film also arrives at a moment when the country is experiencing nostalgia for the Kennedy era of social commitment, spurred by the passing of the founder of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, and the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" Inaugural Address.

For all his talent as a vocal stylist and dedicated actor, Belafonte's show business career is almost an afterthought here. Even biographical elements -- his Jamaican immigrant mother, a then controversial marriage to a white woman and his children forced to share their dad with the world -- are used to explore what drives Belafone, even today at nearly 84, to seek the overthrow of injustice.

Not that the story of his show business career doesn't make for an impressive life. He studied drama with the likes of Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis and Rod Steiger. Paul Robeson visited him backstage after a performance at New York's Village Vanguard to urge him to get people "to sing your song and they will want to know who you are."

He has won Grammy, Tony and Emmy Awards but has walked away from lucrative gigs that would have compromised his stance against racism. An ardent foe of injustice wherever he finds it and an advocate of welding his art and celebrityhood as weapons against oppression, Belafonte was harassed by everyone from FBI to Vegas mafia bosses. Threats only seem to stiffen his resolve.

It's not that he always went looking for fights. Martin Luther King Jr. called to him first. So did Eleanor Roosevelt. He did organize a major effort by black leaders to reach out to Bobby Kennedy, who was startlingly unenlightened about the African-American condition but proved a fast learner. He also, a generation later, greased the wheels for the song "We Are the World," played simultaneously around the globe on radio, as a protest against appalling starvation in Africa.

He showed bravery: He and Sidney Poitier flew to Greenwood, Miss., during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, carrying $60,000 in cash to fund the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He speaks his mind: He was among America's leaders in the anti-apartheid movement and remains a critic of U.S. foreign policy.

The film employs excellent archival footage as Rostock races from one major political confrontation or crises to the next. The pace is almost frantic and younger people may not always understand the back stories to many of these battles for equality and liberty.

Belafonte's many thoughts and reflections focus outwardly throughout the movie. There is no inward contemplation. One would miss this in a normal biopic. Even in this extraordinary biopic as political manifesto, Rostock may short change viewers a little by never getting past the Belafonte image to confront Belafonte the man.

SoSing Your Song is the official, sanctioned story. But it unerringly captures what continues to drive the man, who currently is engaged in the "prison movement," meant to understand how and why so many young black men are incarcerated in America today.

It all comes down to his constant query: "What do you do now?"

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Belafonte Enterprises and S2BN Entertainment in association with Julius R Nasso Prods.
Director: Susanne Rostock
Producers: Michael Cohl, Gina Belafonte, Jim Brown, William Eigen, Juilius R. Nasso
Directors of photography: Bobby Shepherd, Jim Brown, Peter Pilafian
Music: Hahn Rowe
Editor: Susanne Rostock, Jason Pollard
Sales: United Talent Agency
No rating, 104 minutes