Harry Chapin is a singer/songwriter who is best known for his iconic tune “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Though the late artist has sold over 16 million albums, music was not his only passion. The new documentary Harry Chapin: When In Doubt Do Something chronicles his music career and his focus on trying to end world hunger.
Director/producer Rick Korn’s documentary Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something features interviews with Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar, Sir Bob Geldof, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and members of Chapin’s family. Korn talked to us about what made Chapin such a unique and focused individual.
Proceeds from the documentary will go to both WhyHunger (which Chapin co-founded with Bill Ayres) and The Harry Chapin Foundation.
As one can see from your documentary, Harry Chapin was passionate about giving back to others, and his focus on trying to end world hunger is inspiring to watch.
That was the main reason for doing this documentary. Harry is a very unique artist in a number of ways. Both musically but more importantly with what he gave back to the world.
A lot of music artist films are about the vices of the music artists and how they crash at some point in their lives. This is a film about someone who was addicted about giving back. He was addicted to empathy and he wanted to inspire people, help people, feed people and motivate people. He’s an amazing character who is so prolific in so many ways.
This is an evergreen documentary, but is there something to be said about releasing this at this time?
I don’t want to say we rushed to get it out at this point and time, but we did. We think this is a 93 minute escape from the noise and we want to totally entertain people but most importantly inspire people to do something.
Harry is such a great messenger for that and I think people need that. We need a little bit of Harry right now in an incredibly divisive world.
What’s the biggest challenge in putting everything together in a 93 minute movie? It seems like an ambitious challenge to take.
It was. Our original cut was two and a half hours. You can’t cover everything that Harry did. You just look at the Broadway shows and so many other things. What we wanted to focus on is this train that was happening over the course of over 10 years where one side of the train you have a really incredible music career with all these iconic songs.
On the other side of the train, it’s this activism. The challenge, to your point, was putting it all together and have it make sense. We had an embarrassment of riches; we could have made a movie out of any portion of his life. We focused on those two things in those 10 years where he accomplished an enormous amount.
If you look at the hunger/poverty portion of his career, he didn’t start WhyHunger until 1975. He died in 1981. What he and Bill Ayres and the grassroots work that they started then is helpling and saving lives today in the middle of the pandemic.
The documentary also shows how Harry was a person who knew how to work with people for the greater good.
The most impressive thing about Harry was how he brought people together. If you look at the work he did in Washington, what you see in our film is Senator Leahy and you see Bob Dole. A Liberal Democrat and a Republican Conservative and you see them working together because of Harry.
One line in the film that really sticks to me is that Ralph Nader told Jann Wenner that Harry Chapin was the most effective person he had ever seen in Washington DC. He was able to bring everybody together. The minute he walked into the room, he commanded your attention.
He was brilliant. (Chapin) knew the topic more than the politicians. He got his hands dirty and dug into these topics that were really important to him. He just didn’t play music or do a concert to raise money.
Looking into Harry’s life, what was the biggest surprise about his life that you learned?
He was very driven in a really erratic way as it relates to his business life and trying to organize and keep control of his family life. He had a very strong and brilliant wife who made sure that relationship with the children and trying to make as much time as possible.
She was also pushing him out the door to focus on raising money and fighting for the hungry. The thing I learned about this is the warning that his wife Sandy in the poem “Cat’s in the Cradle” which was her poem before it was a song, is really a warning to all of us but was also also a warning to Harry.
The other thing that sticks with me personally is how dug in he was. You couldn’t move him. The day he died, he was doing a benefit concert that night. He was driving into the city to meet with his agent and brother who quasi-managed him and they were trying to convince him (saying) “You’ve got stop doing all these benefit concerts because you are hurting your career – if you focused on your career then you can focus on all the good stuff.” Ironically he died that day and he never got read the riot act.
The passion of (Harry Chapin) is what I learned.
What is the key, as a director, in being a good interviewer? Does a part of it come from finding some kind of connection with your interviewee?
It is. Billy Joel was a great interview because I’m from Long Island originally and Billy grew up in the town next to mine. Harry lived in the town next to ours. Talking to him was like talking to our neighbor, another guy back from the day. We started filming and talking about Harry and he goes “Hey I’m ready whenever you’re ready to film.” And we had the film.
Being at there level, so to speak, and finding that conversational ground and talking about what you found amazing with your subject or the subject you’re talking about. And asking (them) “Did you find that amazing?” That’s how we kind of get into it.
How has your motivations as a filmmaker changed over the years?
It has changed. The industry has changed. There is more opportunity. If you’re looking to get rich, don’t get into documentaries. I think the key of being a good documentary filmmaker is that you have to be really passionate about the topics.
When we started In Plain View, we (decided) to focus on stories that really mattered in the world. We looked at friend of mine whose son was murdered in Sandy Hook and he started Sandy Hook Promise. We looked at it as not a sad story but a really inspirational story on how a former professional musician turned his life around, created Sandy Hook Promise after his son died and it’s saving thousands of students to this day.
If Harry’s story was another music artist, I would not be interested in making the film if it was something that you don’t feel good about when you leave. We just want to make inspirational stories and tell stories that really matter today.
Can you name one of your favorite films and what is it about this film that still resonates with you?
A recent film that I really like is Judd Apatow’s The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. I loved the way they used his notes and his letter I thought was brilliant. Garry was such a complex guy I can imagine with Judd putting it together and having him basically narrate his own story is a huge advantage that I didn’t have with Harry obviously.
That was a film after you watch it you go “I wish I did that.” There are just so many films that I really admire. Anything by Alex Gibney is good for me to. That’s what I would say.
Appreciate your time and good luck with your documentary.
Thank you so much for having us.
Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something is now open in select thaters and is available on virtual cinema. Cities include New York City, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Phoenix, Seattle, Sacramento, and Portland.
Take a listen to the latest episode of the Find Your Film podcast as we review The Trial of the Chicago 7 and recommend a slew of movies (including Children of the Damned and The Opening Act):