Sing Your Song is a résumé disguised as a documentary film. It provides a detailed, meticulous outline of the life of Harry Belafonte, complete with notable achievements and personal references (including Martin Luther King, Jr.!). And while director Susanne Rostock deserves credit for compiling the man’s remarkable life in an entertaining, easy-to-engage format, the film is utterly canned.
When younger people think of Belafonte, they usually think of his famous recording of “Day O (The Banana Boat Song).” Others remember seeing him on The Muppet Show. Some mistakenly think he sang “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” But the singer, actor and activist has a rich list of accomplishments that goes beyond his renditions of folk songs.
Belafonte was never the single face of a movement, but he never hesitated to lend his name and resources to causes he believed in, from Civil Rights in the 1950s to recent protests against the war in Iraq. Sing Your Song reveals how he fought for racial equality both on the frontlines and through his art, including performances in several hot-button films. He revealed himself as a man of high principles on many occasions during the ’50s and ’60s, when he refused to compromise on TV and film productions when producers were afraid to depict mixed-raced relationships.
His story won’t fail to catch viewers’ attention, but the film relies too heavily on overly scripted voice-over narration by Belafonte. The urge to let him tell his own story is understandable, even admirable, but his tone is the antithesis of conversational. On multiple occasions, he randomly mentions that this play or album won a Tony or a Grammy—which is fine in a Wikipedia entry, but not for a film that wants to connect with its subject on a personal level.
Making the tone even less authentic, a feeling pervades that the full details of Belafonte’s personal life are missing. He blames the demise of his first marriage on harassment by the FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare, but he actually stayed married and had two children after he was under scrutiny. The film ignores that his marriage didn’t actually end until shortly before his second marriage. I don’t know enough about Belafonte’s life to judge the circumstances of either marriage, and I wasn’t looking for character assassination, but the film loses credibility through its urge to paint an idyllic love story out of the second marriage’s courtship.
The more the film goes on, the more it skirts issues and glosses over bits that sound very interesting indeed, especially when it comes to the women he loved. A depiction of a man would have been more interesting than a depiction of a saint. It would have been wiser to leave Belafonte’s love life out entirely than to portray such a one-sided account of events.
Ultimately, Sing Your Song depicts a brave and immensely talented man who joined with the likes of King and Nelson Mandela to fight for justice and equality. If the filmmakers had combined that history with a genuine study of the person who lived it, Sing Your Song could have been great. Instead it plays as a high-end PR piece—informative and inspirational, but unable to crack its subject’s facade.
Director: Susanne Rostock
Writer: Susanne Rostock
Starring: Harry Belafonte
Release Date: Sept. 2, 2011