Harry Chapin’s motto, “when in doubt, do something,” has no doubt left the world a better place. The late singer, songwriter and activist’s endless desire to give back and iconic music is explored in filmmaker Rick Korn’s latest film, Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something. The inspiring documentary will make its world premiere during the 28th annual Hamptons International Film Festival. It will screen virtually, as well as at an Amagansett Drive-In on Saturday, October 10.
We had the chance to speak with Korn about the legendary musician, why his music still resonates with people to this day, Harry’s legacy and much more.
Could you speak to Harry’s legacy – both musically and personally – and why it was something you wanted to explore through this documentary?
RK: Well, first and foremost, my first introduction to Harry was in 1974. I was a junior in high school and Harry came into our high school during the lunch hour, put on a concert and talked about hunger and poverty. Everyone who went to my high school will never forget that day. It was really incredible. He played for two hours, all the teachers in the school, all the students in the school were there. He then stayed another two hours afterwards talking to students about hunger and poverty. It was really a remarkable day. That was my first experience with Harry. I think I went to one or two concerts after that. I wasn’t a huge Harry Chapin fan, but I liked his music. I’m from Long Island, the town right next to Huntington, where he was, so he was kind of an icon back then.
The reason for making the film, back in the late 1990s, I started working with WhyHunger, which is an organization that Harry created, and is still in existence. I was filming the executive director there and the ex executive director, Bill Ayres, who co-founded WhyHunger with Harry. I said, “Bill, how come no one’s ever made a documentary about you and Harry? It’s just an amazing story.” And he said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you do it?” That’s how we got started. He introduced me to Sandy Chapin [Harry’s widow] and to Jason Chapin [Harry’s son]. Jason and Sandy are both producers of the film. Sandy said, “Well, you know, we’ll let you do it, but you have to give away two thirds of your profits of the film to our charities.” So, that’s what we did, which is kind of our business model anyway, and here we are two and a half years later.
What does it mean to you to be able to give back to the causes that meant so dearly to Harry?
RK: The organizations that Harry started in 75 – and there’s Harry and Bill and Sandy – are amazing organizations that are helping people to this day, and I’m not saying small numbers of people, we’re talking about millions of people a year. From 1975 to 2020, and in particular with the pandemic, his organizations have become more important than ever. Harry philanthropically, really on that day in 74, really got into my soul a bit, like he did with so many other people. If you look at the people that Harry influenced, Bruce Springsteen, even Pete Seeger, who is older than him, Harry just motivated him. If you’ve ever been to a Bruce Springsteen show, as I said before, he always at some point in the show talks about the food bank in the town that he’s in performing and to support them. Billy Joel does the same thing. All these incredible music artists, We Are The World and Hands Across America and Live Aid and so on and so forth, he inspired such incredible humanity amongst music artists, politicians and regular people like you and me.
Even nowadays, his music is referenced throughout pop culture. Why do you think his songs resonate so deeply with people?
RK: Well, Harry was a filmmaker before his music career really started taking off. From my perspective, if you look at the way he structured songs, take Taxi, for example, you feel like you’re one of those two people in the taxi. Cats in the Cradle, oh my god… Even though Sandy wrote the song, he delivered it in a way that to this day is something that people know that song. It reaches inside you. Some people look at it as a sad song. I think Sandy intended that song to be a warning. That warning lives generation to generation.
A little funny side note. My daughter, Lindsay, and my granddaughter live up in Rochester, New York. Right before Labor Day weekend, my wife came in and said, “Lindsay’s husband is going away for the weekend. Why don’t we go up for the weekend and spend some time with Lindsay and our granddaughter, Josie.” I can’t because we’re launching this film, I’m working on a docu concert. There’s just too much going on. And she says, “Oh, okay, I’ll tell Lindsay that the man who is doing the movie about the Cats in the Cradle guy can’t make it because he’s too busy.” So it’s very much part of our pop culture, that song. Harry’s music just gets inside your soul because you see yourself in one of those characters. He basically plays himself, he always looked at his own foibles. People can relate to that. A lot of songwriters do that, but it’s the way he delivered it, the style he delivered it, the uniqueness of his music, particularly at that time, adding a cello into the band, having John Wallace who’s got this incredible voice. It was unique at the time, it’s still unique. Harry’s in a category by himself – it’s not rock and roll, it’s not folk music, he’s Harry Chapin music.
Who are you hoping to reach with this documentary?
RK: One of the reasons why we wanted to come out with this film now, before the election, is that there’s so much divisiveness in this country. What Harry brings to the table is a 93 minute respite from the craziness of the world and voting and all the crazy stuff that you see on TV. For 93 minutes, you will be inspired and inspired to do something. You’ll be thoroughly entertained, but you’re going to be inspired to want to do something. We want to reach everybody. We tested this film with 20 and 30-year-olds, as well as 40 plus. The 30-year-olds knew of Cats in the Cradle – the song, they didn’t know who the guy was. The 20-year-olds didn’t know necessarily Cats in the Cradle, maybe they heard it, but they definitely didn’t know who the guy was. By the end of watching this film, we got standing ovations because it is a story that is important today. That’s why we wanted to get this film out before the election and inspire people to do something.
We spoke about this a bit earlier, but nearly 40 years after his death, Harry’s impact still can be felt locally through Long Island Cares. So, it’s incredibly special that the film is making its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival in the Views From Long Island section.
RK: It’s fantastic. I wish it was in a different year because of the pandemic. But, we’re thrilled because Harry still means so much to Long Island. The number of people that the charities feed on Long Island, particularly Long Island Cares and the great, incredible people that work there who were on the front line when the pandemic hit. You know, you think about it, here’s a guy that had an idea in 1975. That idea is still saving lives and feeding people and feeding families to this very day. I think we just want to reach anybody who is open, who is tired, who wants to be inspired, and be entertained, and maybe give back a little bit themself.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
RK: Just when in doubt, do something.
The 28th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will take place Thursday, October 8 through Wednesday, October 14.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.