Film Review: Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something

STUDIO: Greenwich Entertainment | DIRECTOR: Rick Korn
RELEASE DATE: Oct. 16, 2020
SPECS: NR | 93 min. | Documentary

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  1/2

A comprehensive survey of the wonderful music, major accomplishments and short life of singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, this documentary should register strongly with performers fans and likely make some new ones, as well.

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something offers a fairly straightforward, chronological look at Chapin, beginning with his early years growing up in Brooklyn and playing in Greenwich Village folk clubs with brothers Steve and Tom, then going out alone and making a name for himself and finding success with his own group and such songs as “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “W.O.L.D.,” “Taxi” and “30,000 Tons of Bananas.”

The son of legendary jazz drummer Jim Chapin, who played with bands led by the likes of Woody Herman and Tommy Dorsey and wrote essential music lessons books, Harry Chapin is shown as someone who cared as much about charitable causes as he did about his career. As noted here, Chapin may have played 200 live shows a year, but at least half of them were for charitable causes. Along with disc jockey Bill Ayres, Chapin began the organization WhyHunger in 1975, which is given ample time in the film and remains in operation today.

Expertly put together by director Rick Korn, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something boasts interviews with family, friends and admirers including Billy Joel, Pat Benatar, Bob Geldof, Bruce Springsteen, childhood friend Robert Lamm (of Chicago), the late Peter Seeger and Daryl McDaniels from the seminal rap group Run/DMC. Also first-rate is the archival footage of such Chapin influences as The Weavers, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio, along with live appearances in concert and on a bunch of TV variety and talk shows.

Along the way, we learn that Chapin was also an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (for the 1968 boxing documentary Legendary Champions), he was at the center of a bidding war when both Columbia and Elektra Records wanted to sign him, his wife Sandy had an incredible influence on his career and how the song “Cat’s in the Cradle” has permeated pop culture over the years.

The legacy of Chapin, who died in a car accident at the age of 39 on the Long Island Expressway, lives on in his songs and the work he did off-stage and out of the music industry limelight. Ultimately, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something is a portrait of an artist as a mensch.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.