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Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something (A Movie Review)


Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

Featuring Sandy Chapin, Tom Chapin, Steve Chapin, Big John Wallace, Howard Fields, Ken Kragen, Jeb Hart, Bill Ayres, Billy Joel, Robert Lamm, Pat Benatar, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Bob Geldof, Jac Holzman, Dave Marsh, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Josh Chapin, Jen Chapin, Jaime Chapin, Abigail Chapin, Lily Chapin, Jono Chapin, Noreen Springstead, Karen Washington, Paule T. Pachter and archival footage of Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Written by Rick Korn.

Directed by Rick Korn.

Distributed by Greenwich Entertainment. 93 minutes. Not Rated.

It is easy to forget in the almost 40 years since his way-too-early death in an automobile crash what an important place Harry Chapin played in music in the 1970s. He was expected to be a major superstar, and he could have been, but he always put his social conscience ahead of his career.

Looking back at his passionate activism and self-sacrifice in the era of Trump, Chapin comes off as all-the-more impressive, both as a musician and as a man. Harry Chapin never put himself first, and was generous to a fault with his time, efforts and money. He saw the betterment of humanity as his real reason for being, and if being a singer-songwriter could advance that goal, then all the better.

Chapin was a folk-rock-oriented singer songwriter who specialized in wistful story-songs, usually about people living with regret. He started out in a family group with his brothers. In 1972 was the subject of a record company bidding war as a solo artist, landing at Elektra Records and becoming one of the highest paid singers ever at the time.

At the time, the labels were more open to the idea of prestige artists, so while they hoped and expected for Chapin to become a superstar – which he sort of did – they were also willing to give him complete creative control, both of his music and his career.

These days Chapin is mostly remembered for a couple of songs. His smash hit “Cat’s in the Cradle” is still a beloved standard all these years later – I just saw it used on TV less than a week ago – and “Taxi” is less remembered, but also considered a classic of musical storytelling.

However, limiting his career to these two songs is losing out on a terrific body of work. He had other hit singles over the years – including “W-O-L-D,” “I Wanna Learn a Love Song,” “Sunday Morning Sunshine” and “Sequel” (which was, literally, a sequel to the song “Taxi”). He also had many terrific album tracks like “Remember When the Music,” “Mr. Tanner,” “Shooting Star,” “Halfway to Heaven” and “Story of a Life.”

The story of Chapin’s life, however, was not tied to the music. He loved singing and writing, but his real goal was as a philanthropist. He was a vital cog in the Presidential Commission on World Hunger. He played pretty much any charity show he was asked to do. He went to Washington, or wherever else he was needed, to help causes he was passionate about – and he was passionate about many causes.

He even died driving to a free benefit concert at which he was supposed to perform.

I must admit, I was relatively young when Chapin died in 1981, so I didn’t quite know about his tireless selflessness for his causes. Harry Chapin’s career somewhat suffered for his causes. If he didn’t spend so much time giving of himself, he would have been more successful as a musician.

However, that just makes Chapin more impressive as a person, particularly in this day and age. Harry Chapin didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. He gave of himself as much as he could because he loved other people and couldn’t stand the idea of others suffering.

When in doubt, do something.

This loving documentary not only reopens our eyes to a songbook which has been sadly underappreciated over the years, but it also gives us a glimpse into the soul of a man who cared so much.

The epitaph on his tombstone is a verse from his 1978 song “I Wonder What Would Happen to This World.” The headstone reads: “Oh if a man tried to take his time on Earth / And prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth / I wonder what would happen to this world.”

They don’t make people like Harry Chapin all that often. That is a shame for the rest of the world.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: October 16, 2020.

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