In between the bubblegum pop that ruled the early 1970s and the corporate rock that dominated the second half of the decade came Cat’s in the Cradle, the commercial peak for the man who was, at the time, folk rock’s top troubadour. While the No. 1 single became a defining moment in Harry Chapin’s career, it was far from his only highlight.
It was, however, a song that reverberated through Chapin’s life, as he struggled to balance the demands of his career, his passion for activism, and his personal life as a husband and father to a blended family. While he wasn’t always successful in achieving that balance, he usually put forth a 110% effort in trying, a fact that is often lamented and celebrated in a new documentary, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something.
The fact that his family is heavily involved in the film doesn’t mean it shies away from his shortcomings. His ex-wife, Sandy, talks about the strain Harry’s schedule placed on their marriage; in one telling sequence, we see a handwritten note promising her a certain number of nights at home, a promise she says he was not able to keep.
But what those moments do is remind us of the fact that Harry Chapin was flawed and human, though he lived a life of almost superhuman proportions. The film reminds us that, by the age of 33, Chapin had been nominated for an Oscar (from his early career as a filmmaker), a Tony (for a Broadway play he’d written), and a Grammy. A bidding war had earned him what was, at the time, the biggest record contract in history. And he had a president’s ear.
After filling us in on Chapin’s early life story, complete with a generous helping of home videos and old family photos, and his career’s rapid rise, the film turns to his activism. With partner Bill Ayres, Chapin launched World Hunger Year, an organization dedicated to wiping out world hunger. As he became more and more passionate about the cause, he started to bend the ears of politicians. He struck up a friendship with Senator Patrick Leahy (who speaks at length about their relationship in the film), which eventually earned Chapin a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. That meeting led to the formation of Presidential Commission on World Hunger.
A large portion of the film is dedicated to Chapin’s charity work and legacy. Sir Bob Geldof acknowledges Chapin’s influence in the creation of Band Aid and Live Aid. Chapin’s manager, Ken Kragen, speaks about how Chapin’s spirit drove him to become the guiding force behind the USA for Africa and Hands Across America projects.
But even as the documentary veers into celebrating Chapin’s charitable achievements, it never forgets the music. Artists like Billy Joel and Pat Benatar share stories about their encounters with Chapin, and they share their appreciation for his music. Through performance clips and montages, we’re treated to more than a dozen of Chapin’s most significant songs, and one entertaining interlude looks at the lasting impact of Cat’s in the Cradle on American culture.
Chapin’s death, in an automobile accident in 1981, was a tragedy that robbed the world of one of its great crusaders and one of its great artists. Nearly four decades later, we’re left to speculate about what he might have been able to accomplish had he lived. But we’re also left to ponder the possibility that his death may have also been the catalyst for some of the changes he’d been fighting for. Either way, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something is an overdue and enjoyable tribute to a man who made a real difference in the time that he had.