If you’re from New York and grew up in the late 60s and early 70s, Harry Chapin a big name. When all the singer songwriters like Carole King and James Taylor were springing up from the west coast, Harry Chapin was our guy. This was just around the time of Billy Joel and “Piano Man,” when Harry–who no one had heard of– sprung his six minute single, “Taxi,” about getting high in a cab, driving around and running into an old lover, actually became a hit record.
Now a producer named Rick Korn has made a comprehensive and moving documentary about Harry– who died in a terrible car crash in 1981 on the Long Island Expressway– called “When in Doubt, Do Something.” The documentary plays the Hamptons Film Festival on Saturday and is also available for streaming on the festival’s website.
I have a particular interest in Harry Chapin. Around 1991, I went to a wedding where his father, Jim, a famous jazz drummer, was playing with his band. I met all the Chapins who were around at the time and even got them to play at a friend’s wedding in 1992. Harry had already been gone a decade, but I was fascinated by this family of folk singers and talented musicians who grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn and had American roots back to the 1600s.
Harry was not just a singer with many hits like “Taxi” and “Cat’s Cradle,” story songs. He was also a political activist. His involvement in World Hunger Year or WHY with Father Bill Ayres (not the leader of the Weather Underground) is well known in the New York area. (Bill Ayres had a Sunday night radio on WPLJ for decades that was legendary.) With Ayres, Harry became a devoted activist to the cause of eradicating hunger. His death in 1981 stopped him short of things like Live Aid, but it turns out Bob Geldof — who’s in the film — points to him as a major influence. (Harry’s manager was Ken Kragen, who helped Geldof produce that event and “We Are the World.”) There is also rare footage of a young Bruce Springsteen in concert reminiscing about Harry’s enthusiasm and perseverance.
Well, when you think about it, of course. Springsteen and Billy Joel — also in the film — are considered our tri-state troubadours who made it big. But Harry Chapin, if he’d lived into the media-friendly 80s, would have been the third man in that trio. They all hit at basically the same time and had similar social issue interests.
I don’t know how Korn put this all together because “When in Doubt” covers a large area and a diverse group of people including Darryl McDaniels of RunDMC. I didn’t know that Harry was going to be a documentary filmmaker. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1968. (His uncle was Richard Leacock, who knew?) I also didn’t know that helped out Michael Moore before “Roger and Me,” as a fellow activist. Korn really has a lot to map out, he doesn’t even get into the fact that these Chapins are distant cousins of Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Korn uses some clumsy devices to link a lot of things together, but in the end it all works. He’s got two big stories running like steam engines on different tracks: Harry the singer and pop star, and Harry the serious activist. Chapin was only 38 when he died, leaving 5 kids and a widow, as well as four brothers and band that wanted to keep his legacy alive, as well as Ayers and the whole hunger-poverty movement. That’s a lot.
And then there is the music: there’s a nice section on “Cat’s in the Cradle,” how it’s been referred to or used in films and TV ever since the 70s, not to mention all the other songs. (I used to love “WOLD.”) But again, you see how all the social activist work Harry did resonates today. Hunger and food deprivation has only gotten worse, but Harry left behind mechanisms to fight it.
The Hamptons drive in screening on Saturday is sold out. I almost wish I could be there since the Chapins — when I met them– lived in nearby Sag Harbor. It’s going to be quite a homecoming. I hope this film gets a great distributor or platform and a lot of play. Everyone needs to see it, and to know about Harry Chapin. I can’t even imagine what he’d think of what we’re living through now. It would break his heart.
PS I don’t know how to fit this all in the review, but Harry had a lovely friendship with Pat Benatar, who’s in the film, she’s terrific. He also grew up with Robert Lamm of the group Chicago, also in the film. And there’s rare footage of Harry and his brothers on a folk music show on Canadian television on the same stage as a very young Joni Mitchell.
a little taste of the Springsteen section: