|“In recent years, I have looked beyond our borders and saw young people all over the world are really in need of each other.” – Harry Belafonte.Harry Belafonte’s career is often overlooked for how incredibly prolific it has been. In a career which has spanned 8 decades, Belafonte was a groundbreaking and enigmatic leader in utilizing his status as a pop culture celebrity to break down racial walls and stereotypes. He has likewise played a significant role in legitimizing and mainstreaming not only the Civil Rights Movement in this country, but racial equality in all forms. With Sing Your Song, Harry Belafonte receives a glowing and impressive heralding, as long as we acknowledge that the film is narrated by Harry, he often speaks directly to the camera, and daughter Gina Belafonte is a co-producer on the project. So the question rather quickly becomes this: How good and/or insightful can a documentary film be when one essentially commissions it upon his/herself?
With Sing Your Song, the answer is “Pretty Good,” as director Susanne Rostock makes her feature film debut and makes a fast and easy decision to turn everything over to Belafonte. She is credited with writing the film and I assume she is behind writing the sections that Belafonte speaks directly into the camera, and narrates for us, over an impressive array of archival footage and imagery. The accomplishments Belafonte has achieved are staggering and while this is the absolute definition of the term, “hagiography”, I sat compelled through much of Sing Your Song.
Known notably as the “Day-O” singer by recent generations, Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927 and at the age of 26 had become one of the biggest singers in the world. Previous to his musical successes, he attended the enviable Dramatic Workshop in New York City and found names like Brando, Poitier, Matthau, and Curtis as some of his classmates. Belafonte emerged as a notable actor and landed a Tony Award for a stint in Broadway in the early 1950s. He could sing, dance, act, with boundless enthusiasm and charisma, and became the first singer ever to sell 1 million copies of a recorded album. Belafonte was on top of the world and used that fame and acclaim to push the envelope, attempting to break down racial obstacles whenever and wherever he could.
In 1961, Belafonte won an Emmy for a groundbreaking television special which introduced music, culture, and rhythm from all over the world. Picked up for a subsequent series of specials, Belafonte seemingly pushed too far and by quilting together numerous ethnicities on the small screen, advertisers began to resist and Belafonte walked away from the show after 6 episodes in total. Continuing with his work, Belafonte moved beyond singing and acting and while those job opportunities remained plentiful and lucrative, he transitioned into activism and became a valued confidant and friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Watching Harry Belafonte recount his story, it is next to impossible to not be impressed by the man. Throughout his entire life, he tells everything with the richness of a gifted orator, never bragging or boasting, but informing about a life that is nothing less than extraordinary. Some impressive names pop up to speak about Harry, including Quincy Jones, Coretta Scott King, and others, and the footage of Belafonte later in life working alongside Presidents of the United States, leaders of other countries, and Nelson Mandela are simply awe-inspiring.
Yes, Sing Your Song lulls you away from remembering the fact that this was, at the end of the day, a Belafonte-driven project. While acknowledging that most people will never recognize that, I have to say that the film is so well put together, and its subject so worthy of a feature film documentary, it is understandable that the film was considered as potentially landing a 2011 Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. And while a strong argument can be made that there is something else perhaps powering the engine here regarding the film’s mere existence, Sing Your Song is hard to deny.
While the movie does drag in places, Sing Your Song is a good film with an impressive man at its core. Harry Belafonte has been a trusted and prized asset in the fight for equality for decades and decades and as I warmed to the film, I became frustrated that more has not been made of his accomplishments. Then again, there are not really any signs of dissent here, but I nonetheless appreciated learning about his life and his influence. While I do find it rather problematic, if not downright curious, that very few family members and/or children appear on screen and his first two marriages are glossed over as failing because of circumstance and never from personal failures, Sing Your Song is well-intentioned and heartfelt.