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The phrase “When in doubt, do something,” was a way of life for the legendary musician Harry Chapin.
A new film celebrating the life and legacy of the 70’s singer-songwriter is out this weekend in virtual cinemas. The film is a compelling story of a remarkable artist who made his mark equally as a musician and as an activist.
The film traces Chapin’s career from his early days in the 1960’s when he part of a trio with his brothers Tom and Steve, through his career breakthrough in the mid-1970’s. The latter part of the film focuses on his later years which were consumed with social activism along with music. He went further than most socially conscious musicians, playing over 100 benefit shows a year and earning a reputation for his sense of purpose in Washington.
Music fans will certainly enjoy the film, a flashback to a time in history where things seemed (but not always were) a bit simpler. Of course, tragedy looms largely while viewing – Chapin died in a horrific car accident at age 38 in 1981. Still, his zest for life and performance drive the film.
Let’s remember, Chapin came to fame in an age when singer-songwriters ruled the radio airwaves. Artists like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and of course Bob Dylan were at the top of the charts. The confessional style was peaking in the early 70’s and the growth of FM radio helped shape careers. When Chapin finally gets his record contract (after a protracted bidding war), it was one of the biggest ever awarded to that date.
Several well-known artists were interviewed for the film – including Billy Joel, who once opened for Chapin. Bruce Springsteen was a close friend and tells long stories about Chapin’s long stories. And who knew Robert Lamm of Chicago was a childhood friend who sang in Church choir with Chapin? Others interviewed for the film include Pat Benatar, Bob Geldof, Daryl “DMC” McDaniels, Senators Pat Leahy and Bob Dole, and his widow Sandy Chapin. A motely crew indeed.
Of course, Chapin is best known for his brilliant songwriting. The film tells the story of his first hit “Taxi” described by Billy Joel as “smart, but simple.” The song, 60% or so based on the author’s experience, is a clinic in songwriting, and brought attention, and equally importantly, music industry interest in 1971.
His hit “Cats in the Cradle,” based on a poem written by his wife, has nine live and more. It has been memorialized in media, and referenced on television shows including “The Office,” “Blackish,” “Friends,” and “Modern Family.” The song’s message is now seen as a point of good-natured humor, as well as a serious attempt to bridge generations.
Like other “larger than life” personalities, Chapin could drive his friends and family crazy – he had a hard time saying no to a benefit gig. He is remembered for his integrity and charm, “he was an authentic star,” notes Pat Benatar who later recorded his song “Shooting Star.”
Chapin’s leadership in fighting world hunger is also a focus of the film, as is his lifetime commitment to that cause. Friends and family acknowledge that his devotion probably took time away from his artistic goals; still, his dedication was admirable. It earned him a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal, and food pantries around New York City still bear his name.
Chapin left behind a legacy – his brother Tom has been a mainstay on the folk scene for years and daughter Jen Chapin went into the family business as well. Two nieces, Abigail and Lily Chapin, perform as the Chapin Sisters.
“Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something,” is available in virtual cinemas now including here through the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport. I highly recommend it.