REVIEW: Sing Your Song Doesn't Need to Tease Greatness Out of Harry Belafonte — It's Already There
It takes at least two things to make a terrific documentary: A great subject and a light but deft touch. Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song, which traces the career of Harry Belafonte with a specific focus on the singer and actor’s social activism, certainly has the former -- it’s the latter that’s lacking. But if nothing else, Sing Your Song works as a testament to Belafonte’s drive and dedication to causes well outside the usual goals of simply making money. If you don’t know much about Belafonte beyond the fact that he was that great-looking guy who had a hit in the '50s with “The Banana Boat Song,” Rostock’s documentary is as good a place as any to start.
Sing Your Song is simply conceived and constructed: Rostock (making her directing debut, though she’s been editing documentaries for years) uses on-camera interviews with Belafonte, as well as voice-over narration, to frame a selection of television and news clips and still photographs. The story doesn’t need much embellishment: Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927, though he spent a portion of his childhood with his grandmother, in Jamaica. He served in the Navy during World War II, and afterward became involved, along with his friend Sidney Poitier, with the American Negro Theater. Belafonte also studied acting at the New School, along with Poitier, Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Bernie Schwartz (the last better known as Tony Curtis). He began singing in clubs in New York in the early 1950s. And when he saw Huddie Ledbetter on stage one evening, he was inspired to start researching folk music himself, not just purely American folk music, but that of other countries as well -- his 1956 album Calypso was the first LP to sell more than 1 million copies. (Sing Your Song includes a TV clip of '50s talk-show host Steve Allen passing one framed gold record after another into Belafonte’s arms.)
Belafonte appears to have become a social activist without even knowing it, inspiring outrage in an extremely segregated America without even trying. In Robert Rossen’s 1957 Island in the Sun, his character’s romance with a white woman (played by Joan Fontaine) spurred controversy, though it also boosted ticket sales. Racism was still a huge problem -- perhaps even a bigger problem -- in 1968, when Petula Clark, performing on television with Belafonte, dared to take his arm. The outcry from advertisers and the public was deafening.
Sing Your Song suggests that all of these experiences helped shape Belafonte’s political sensibility, goading him into action instead of just accepting injustice. Rostock includes interviews with significant figures of the civil rights movement, among them Julian Bond, who explains how much it meant to see Belafonte on television in the 1950s: “You’d call your neighbor – ‘Colored on TV!’ It was so rare.” And Belafonte himself explains how he became drawn to the civil rights cause: Martin Luther King Jr. set up a meeting with him, assuring him it wouldn’t take long. Four hours later, Belafonte emerged, ready to do anything necessary to get the point across to the rest of the nation.
Sing Your Song is most potent in dealing with Belafonte’s activism during the '50s and '60s, becoming murkier and more disorganized when Rostock heads into the Watergate era. It’s not that Belafonte’s work became less visible or less significant at that point, but Rostock presents those years as a blurry laundry list, whirring from Belafonte’s efforts to end hunger in Ethiopia to his anti-Apartheid activities to his involvement in the turmoil in Haiti in the mid-1990s. By the last third, Sing Your Song begins to feel more like a promotional film -- promoting activism, if nothing else -- than a well-rounded portrait. Still, it’s valuable for both the vintage footage Rostock has collected and for the observations provided by Belafonte, who is as charming, handsome and persuasive in his mid-80s as he ever was. When he speaks about his recent efforts to end gang violence in Los Angeles, he says, “I’m still looking to fix these things I thought we fixed 50 years ago.” Retirement, apparently, isn’t an option.