When in doubt, watch Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something.
The story of Chapin’s life will – at least temporarily – restore one’s faith in humanity and remind viewers of the power of one.
Chapin’s story is one of music, yes. But it’s also one of family – his own and the American and world families, too. Chapin sometimes neglected the former to benefit the latter. But everyone admired him – except maybe his half-brother and manager, who wanted Chapin to focus more on his career and less on his charitable efforts.
Chapin skipped a July 15, 1981, business meeting to discuss doing just that. After a browbeating, he promised to arrive the next day, but he didn’t show up. As it happened, he was killed in a car accident on his way to perform a benefit concert.
Chapin was 38.
Writer/director Rick Korn threads the needle between Chapin’s musical and humanitarian pursuits, which is necessary because, as the film states, thinking of Chapin as a singer/songwriter is like thinking of Babe Ruth as a pitcher. Both are true and both are inaccurate.
Chapin played some 200 concerts a year – most of them benefits – and was personally and chronically underfunded. He co-founded Why Hunger, which continues its mission to this day, and was a member of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger.
“I want to matter,” Chapin says at one point in the film when describing his charitable works.
And beyond the indelible “Cats in the Cradle,” 13 additional hits and more than 16 million records sold, he did matter.
“If there was some way to harness Harry’s energy, we could solve energy problems, world-food problems and everything else,” Sen. Patrick Leahy says in archival footage.
Speakers lauding Chapin in both contemporary and historical interviews and news segments include Chicago’s Robert Lamm, Kenny Rogers, Pat Benatar, Harry Belafonte, Bob Geldof, Billy Joel, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Graham Nash, Bruce Springsteen, family members, band members and others.
Chapin was, in Rogers’ words, “the most unselfish person I’ve ever met.”
The 90-minute film traces Chapin’s life from his childhood as the member of an intellectual, artistic and liberal East Coast family to his days as one of folk music’s most-revered storytellers to his humanitarian works to the devastating impact of his death, which Benetar recalls as “the supreme sadness of knowing that light had gone out.”
“When in Doubt, Do Something” ends on Chapin’s legacy, with his wife, children, friends and brothers recalling the musician whose music was secondary to his mission of helping others.
“He wanted to change the world and he did,” Tom Chapin said.
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