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Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something
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by Rob Gonsalves

"He did something."
5 stars

Almost everyone in the new documentary "Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something" smiles when talking about him, and Chapin himself, who died at 38 in a 1981 car wreck, is seldom seen in the movie without a smile.

Even when performing some of his saddest story-songs — “Taxi,” “A Better Place to Be,” “Cat’s in the Cradle” — Chapin wore his irrepressible grin, because in these songs he was working with two things that meant a lot to him: music and humanity. His joy was unquestionable and contagious. What we see in this film, though, is that his musical project was inextricable from his life project; he didn’t just sing about the downtrodden worthy of help — he worked to help them.

By hanging his film on the structure of Chapin’s awakening as a man who agitated endlessly for change, director Rick Korn avoids the trap of the conventional rockumentary — the drugs (Chapin was a straight-edge), the rise and fall (Chapin may have given away lots of time and money, but he never really fell), the comeback. Part of the point of When in Doubt, Do Something is that, in the ways that would have mattered to Chapin, he never died, never went away, so never “came back.” His musical legacy is rock-solid, but his political legacy — not only his charity foundations that survive him after almost forty years but the activists he inspired, from Bob Geldof to Michael Moore — almost outpaces it. Chapin might have thought it was nice if someone happened upon “Taxi” and felt less lonely, but he would’ve grinned his grin to hear that one of his charities filled a belly.

Korn is generous with concert clips anyway, and the literally homey sound of Chapin’s voice — making his songs feel like something you came home to, something that wrapped you against the cold outside in the warmth of story — rings clear. We see a few people (Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen) make noble efforts to cover his songs; his brother Tom comes closest to nailing that affably sympathetic I’ve-got-a-tale-to-tell-you tone (and Tom has the film’s dramatic highlight, heartbroken and almost losing it while performing “Remember When the Music” at Harry’s memorial service). To the extent that Chapin’s music informed his politics and vice versa, the movie gives his songbook its due, but perhaps only as the thing Chapin used to get where he really needed to be — in a room with President Jimmy Carter, talking Christ down from the cross until Carter in essence said “Okay, enough! I agree with you! Let’s do something!”

Chapin comes across in the film not as a saint but as simply a good man, who in the years after his death might have been diagnosed as a type-A personality. Sometimes in entertainment-media fairy tales you hear the beloved story of the star who gives everything of himself and still, mysteriously, has some left for his family. I have a feeling you had to be accustomed to a certain frequency of scattered energy level to hang with Harry Chapin. He sometimes reads here, in anecdotes and in interview footage of him, as the kind of guy who would give away a bunch of his royalty earnings to help feed the hungry but not save aside enough to pay the electric bill.

A few of his old friends and co-activists who reminisce about him here — Sen. Patrick Leahy (age 40 in the vintage footage, with the hair of a 70-year-old), priest turned rock DJ Bill Ayres — seem to be plugged into a similar vibe. They’re still here, still working for change. Chapin, who would have been 78 this year — and who likely would still be here if not for the semi-truck that rear-ended his VW — would be matching them step for step. When in Doubt, Do Something, like Chapin himself, thinks it’s all well and good that he got up onstage and reached millions with his empathy, but his true work on Earth was putting that empathy into real practice.

When that fact clicks into place, we understand why so many people who talk about him smile.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33848&reviewer=416
originally posted: 10/22/20 07:57:01
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USA
  16-Oct-2020 (NR)
  DVD: 10-Nov-2020

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Jeff Korn

Written by
  N/A

Cast
  Harry Chapin
  Billy Joel
  Sandy Chapin
  Tom Chapin
  Bill Ayres
  Patrick Leahy



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