Sing Your Song Review: A Documentary Both Fascinating and Inspiring

The man has lived an incredible life, and this comprehensive doc conveys that in compelling fashion.

rating: 3.5

Harry Belafonte belongs to a small collective of entertainers who have enjoyed massive success in their respective field, yet managed to somehow match that with the enormity of their contributions to society. His story, almost too good to be true, is told with soulful conviction in Susanne Rostock€™s stellar documentary Sing Your Song. Beginning not with a clip of Belafonte performing, as is the pro-forma for most all musician documentaries, we instead open on a riveting montage of various incidents of civil unrest, ones which Belafonte has both encountered and taken a hand in addressing throughout his life. From here, Rostock travels back to Harlem, where it all began. Belafonte is an inspirational figure from the outset by rising up from dire circumstances €“ an impoverished upbringing with a single mother naturally proving difficult €“ and at a still-young age, finding himself schmoozing with the likes of Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau and Sidney Poitier in acting school. With a Tony award win soon racked up, his young adult life appears at first idyllic and effortless, but the trying racial tensions of mid-50s America made it anything but. In spite of this, Belafonte likely had it better than many black citizens growing up in America; as a publically-revered figure, his was appreciated even by some of the bigots, his extensive talent seemingly offsetting his colour in their eyes, and that might in fact be the most absurdly racist thing of all. Still, Belafonte€™s more prominent enemies came by way of Joseph McCarthy€™s Communist witch hunts, and the intrusions of J. Edgar Hoover€™s FBI, who had one of Belafonte€™s managers working for them as an informant, while their dogged determination also caused the dissolution of his first marriage. Through speaking to Belafonte himself, his family and his friends, we observe how he triumphed over these troubling times and helped bring about change for the collective good. It is ironic that despite his obvious talent and popularity, Hollywood was one avenue still not prepared to accept the full measure of his skill, balking at the concept of a mixed-race love scene in one of his films. It follows that his personal life would itself be interpreted as a feat of activism, with his subsequent marriage to a white woman, yet crucially, it is his very public profile that helped bring to the forefront something which today is still a very taboo subject in some quarters. What Rostock does so well here is convey the social ebb and flow that has taken place throughout her subject€™s life, most notably as we enter the period of political and counter-cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. Everything of course changed with Martin Luther King Jr, and the political landscape with regard to race relations became quite starkly drawn between Kennedy €“ who listened to Belafonte€™s plight - and Nixon €“ who didn€™t. In many ways, Belafonte resembles a real-life Forest Gump. It seems like a silly comparison, yet one which did not escape me while watching this film. Though far from simple-minded, he has seemingly been in the place to be so many times, and had his hand in so much socio-political influence that it simply is stranger than fiction. For instance, his overseeing an exchange program for Kenyan students is what initially brought Barack Obama Sr to the US, and in a sense, he has helped shaped the very world we live in today. Subsequently, he was also active in South Africa during Apartheid, meeting with Nelson Mandela. Though his movement building is pitted firmly against his family life, seen here as a challenging juggling act, his children seem pragmatic about it, appreciating the thorough dedication with which he has lived his life. Belafonte and, indeed, the world, was dealt a huge blow with the deaths of King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, yet the man continued to chip away in spite of some very real fears for his own life. This spirit would quite admirably see him through decades more of activism in Africa, and in the present, Iraq, and also Los Angeles. Rostock€™s focusing on Belafonte€™s work against gang violence helps make his life seem less like a time capsule and more like a timeline; we can observe progress, and a sensibility at once infallibly wise and modern-minded. Despite being 85 years of age, Harry Belafonte does not seem to be resting on his laurels as most would quite rightly do. The testament here is to an unerring, gentle soul, keen to selflessly help others without a single hint of agenda or self-consciousness. When films like this can so easily veer off into hagiography, it is just as well. We are left with an image of a man who has been at the cusp of great social change and done enough great things to fill several lifetimes, yet continues to work as a tireless missionary all the same. Oh, and he can sing pretty well too. The format is typical talking head fare told in a simple, linear fashion, but sometimes, with a worthy enough figure, that is all you need. The man has lived an incredible life, and this comprehensive doc conveys that in compelling fashion. Sing Your Song is on limited release in UK cinemas today.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at]