Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something Review

A "cats cradle" to grave music doc

6 mins read

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

(USA, 90 min.)

Dir. Rick Korn


Have your credit card handy and be ready to donate to one of Harry Chapin’s foundations by the end of When in Doubt, Do Something. This celebratory music doc salutes a man who left a great mark on the world both in song and in spirit. Fans of Chapin’s music, best immortalised in the bittersweet ballad “Cat’s in the Cradle,” will undoubtedly tap their toes. While the doc joins countless other boomer musicals in cranking the wheels of the nostalgia factory, When in Doubt, Do Something ultimately concerns itself more with Harry Chapin’s philanthropic work. That’s all well, and can only watch the doc and wish more stars would devote themselves to combatting world hunger and the systemic causes of it. As a film, however, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something veers awkwardly from by-the-numbers biopic to PSA.

The philanthropic PR bent When in Doubt, Do Something is, admittedly, all that distinguishes it from the virtually identical sea of rote musical profile docs these days. That’s not a slight on Chapin or his work, but an observation of a well-trodden formula at play. Cookie cutter as it is, however, When in Doubt, Do Something offers an affectionately upbeat appreciation of Chapin’s work. An impressive roster of musical greats, including Billy Joel and Pat Benatar in new interviews, reflect on Chapin’s legacy. His wife, Sandy, and many of his kids illuminate the life that was taken cruelly short.


“Cats” Legacy

When in Doubt, Do Something informs its take on Chapin’s life, work, and music with the brevity of his time on Earth. The doc devotes considerable time to Chapin’s scattershot early career, which even included directing the documentary Legendary Champions and netting an Oscar nomination in the process. Less digressions and more facets that explain a man who was constantly on the go, the elements of the film weave a portrait of an artist who cared deeply about the world in which he lived and used his platform to help his fellow man.

Musically, When in Doubt, Do Something considers Chapin’s assured skill for storytelling best in the lengthy sequence about “Cat’s in the Cradle.” The doc somewhat gets carried away with the enduring pop cultural legacy of the song. It wheels in nearly every contemporary reference to the tune used on popular shows like Friends, Modern Family, and Family Guy. Then come the countless covers and samples it inspired, including a novel collaboration between Run DMC and Sarah McLachlan.


PSA Meets PR

The musical sequences gradually yield to conversations about Chapin’s activism and philanthropy. Archival footage shows Chapin proudly calling himself the hardest working and most committed celebrity of his time. The interviews support this claim, as When in Doubt, Do Something chronicles Chapin’s indefatigable, if inefficient, campaigning for causes like combatting hunger. Talking heads share how Chapin would play everything from filled concert halls to intimate, and poorly paying, backyard concerts for a cause. As the film notes that Chapin barely broke even because of his 24/7 schedule, and died tragically in a car accident when racing between gigs, it invites audiences to consider what he could have accomplished.

Filmmakers Rick Korn and S.A. Baron (producer, cinematographer and editor, but co-credited with Korn on the ‘a film by’ card) have a lot to deal with here. One can sense that there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and that’s before the credits list nearly thirty producer, executive producer, and co-producer credits. Three of them are Chapin family members—one, his wife, Sandy, is the chairperson of the Harry Chapin Foundation. The film, safe and celebratory, feels like a joint exercise in public relations.

When in Doubt, Do Something ends with a clunky concert in which a few Chapin family members meet for an outdoor concert. COVID-19 restrictions force their performance outside and they note how the pandemic has accelerated poverty gaps and food access. A montage inevitably cuts between the group singing in a semi-circle and the hands working in Chapin’s charities today. As the latter act pushes out the work that continues thanks to Chapin’s spirit, one wishes the doc had more elegantly connected the artist’s legacy for combining musical performances with activist messaging. It doesn’t quite learn from Chapin’s charm as it all but passes the hat by the end.


Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something is now in digital release.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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