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Review: ‘Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something’ charts the singer’s too brief activist life

Harry Chapin performing: an image from a new documentary about him
Harry Chapin in an image from the documentary “Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something.”
(Greenwich Entertainment)

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The realization that singer-songwriter-activist Harry Chapin has now been dead slightly longer than he lived evokes a melancholia not so different from some of the songs he made famous. What sets the documentary “Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something” apart from standard musician profiles is the way it gives at least as much weight to Chapin’s humanitarian efforts as to his better known career as one of the best loved troubadours of the 1970s.

It’s a distinction that Chapin, who trained as a documentary filmmaker, directing the 1968 Academy Award-nominated boxing film “Legendary Champions,” might have appreciated. “When in Doubt, Do Something,” written and directed by Rick Korn, traces Chapin’s life from a bohemian upbringing in a musical New York family — his father Jim was a noted jazz percussionist — to Greenwich Village folkie, international pop star and, finally, an effective global evangelist against poverty and hunger. The film’s subtitle refers to Chapin’s personal credo, one that fueled his actions on social issues.

Through interviews with Chapin’s family, bandmates and music notables (Elektra Records exec Jac Holzman, Billy Joel, Pat Benatar, an archival clip of Bruce Springsteen expressing wary affection for Chapin’s exuberance), Korn paints a compelling portrait of an artist and family man who sometimes stretched himself thin when people asked for help with their causes.

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Chapin’s wife, Sandy, is credited as a true partner and collaborator, who often provided ideas and lyrics and focused her husband in his pursuit of worthy issues. His brothers Tom and Steve recall playing with Harry in a band from which he was eventually demoted to opening act.

Most people remember Chapin primarily for the enormous pop culture footprint of “Cat’s in the Cradle” — derided only by those with hearts of stone and men who are afraid to cry in public — but his relatively short, decade-long recording career also included nine studio albums and 14 singles memorialized here in performance clips. Charismatic and larger-than-life, Chapin had a talent for writing story songs such as “Taxi,” “W*O*L*D” and “Sunday Morning Sunshine” that tugged at the heart with a sad sweetness.

He played 200 shows a year toward the end of his career, half of them benefits, a ratio his then-manager Ken Kragen wasn’t entirely keen on. But it was Chapin’s insistence on trying to change the world that drove him, and he leveraged his fame for some serious political capital. Together with a former Catholic priest and syndicated radio talk show host named Bill Ayres, Chapin dedicated his life to hunger relief. The pair formed the grassroots organizations WhyHunger and Long Island Cares, and Chapin increasingly spent more time in Washington, D.C., lobbying and forming alliances with politicians. He advocated for and was appointed to the Presidential Commission on Hunger under Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Chapin was killed in 1981 in a fiery crash on the Long Island Expressway, but his influence lived on. Kragan credits the spirit of the late singer for motivating his own involvement in projects such as USA for Africa, Hands Across America and Live Aid. Six years after his death, Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work.

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Releasing appropriately enough on World Food Day, “Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something” is an uplifting tribute to an impressive human being. With the ongoing efforts of Chapin’s organizations and the recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the U.N.'s World Food Program, it’s heartening to know that, while Chapin is dearly missed, the work continues.

‘Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 16 via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres; also Oct. 16, San Diego Film Festival drive-in; in limited release where theaters are open outside California


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