The 1970s singer-songwriter Harry Chapin won awards, more after he died in 1981 than while he was alive. Now, there are awards named for him — songwriting and humanitarian honors coveted by generations of performers who have followed.
A montage of movie and TV sitcom scenes in the moving new documentary about him makes the case that this “storyteller” cast a giant shadow across the culture, creating a kind of shorthand for poignant memories of roads not traveled, personal compromises made and absentee parenting.
“Friends” to “The Simpsons” to “Shrek the Third” to “Modern Family to “Black-ish” made variations of the same teary-eyed joke about the guilt of knowing you weren’t being there for your kids. Generations of Americans get the “Cats in the Cradle” reference. Still do.
“Taxi,” “WOLD,” “I Want to Learn a Love Song,” we hear how these classics came about, how Chapin hiring a cellist for his band, adding stringed pathos to the music, made him the distinctive “troubadour” of his day.
But “Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something” is about the man in full, a singer, husband and father, and a performer who dove into human rights the way he threw himself into everything else. Hunger became his issue, and Rick Korn’s film is packed with testimonials about his relentless commitment to this cause, which superseded his career and all but took over his life.
He was on his way to another benefit show when he was killed in a car crash in 1981.
“I want to matter,” he said in interviews, generously sampled here. He lobbied presidents and Congress, and all but turned over his performing life to charity. Half of his concerts in a given year were benefits, often small and intimate even though he was a big star and could have done fewer, bigger shows that drew bigger crowds and raised more money.
“He never said no,” friends and colleagues remember, often to his detriment. But “always for the greater good” was his motto.
“He was like a saint, to the point of being a martyr,” one bandmate recalls. .
Legions of stars and activists give testimonials to how ahead of the curve Chapin was and the example that Chapin set, among them Sir Bob Geldof, recruited to do something about world hunger after Harry’s death.
“What a lovely man,” Geldof remembers. “And how RIGHT was he?”
Here’s Kenny Rogers, who did his share of fund raising concerts to to end hunger, saying Chapin “may have been the single most unselfish person I’ve ever met in my life.”
Bruce Springsteen tells onstage funny anecdotes about Chapin, a famous talker, working him, inspiring him and eventually compelling him to get behind the same cause.
Billy Joel opened for Chapin at the beginning of his career, and used to have people ask him if “Piano Man” was a Harry Chapin song, and always took it as a compliment.
Joel breaks down “Taxi,” about a cabbie picking up on an old girlfriend the driver realizes gave up her dreams and married money, and the power of the song’s punch-line — “‘Harry, keep the change.’ That’s real life. And that’s such a cool line.”
And intercut through all of the tributes, there’s Chapin singing — in concerts, on TV shows, an infectious smile and sense of drama in his voice, drawing listeners in and later, leading sing-alongs to songs people knew by heart then, and many remember still.
“Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something” premieres in theaters and online on Oct. 16, World Hunger Day.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Harry Chapin, Tom Chapin, Pat Benatar, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Belafonte, Sandy Chapin, Bob Geldof, Pete Seeger, Tom Chapin, Robert Lamm, Bruce Springsteen, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Josh Chapin, Michael Moore and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels.
Credits: Directed by Rick Korn. A Greenwich Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:34