Sing Your Song
If you listened to the radio in the 50s, it was impossible to avoid the silken voice of Harry Belafonte, who did more than any other man to make calypso music globally popular. Belafonte has several strings to his bow – he was a commercially successful singer, a good stage actor and an attractive, competent presence in several films. As audiences at this past week’s Hay Festival have learned, he’s a charismatic, charming personality too. Yet as this fascinating documentary about him confirms, it’s as a tireless political activist that he’ll be remembered.
Sing Your Song starts at the beginning. He was born in Harlem in grinding poverty, and after his father abandoned the family he moved to live with relatives in Jamaica, where he learned so many calypso songs.
Back in New York, he joined the American Negro Theatre, where Sidney Poitier was a contemporary, a friend and occasionally a rival for the same roles. As a young man Belafonte met the singer and radical activist Paul Robeson, who became a huge influence on his thinking. The film’s title comes from something Robeson said to him: “Sing your song, and they will know who you are.”
Thus began his lifelong battle against injustice – especially the kind meted out to African-Americans. This film, directed by Suzanne Rostock, uses terrific historical footage to show how Belafonte cultivated connections in high places. He allegedly persuaded Robert Kennedy, a conservative figure earlier in his political career, to endorse and support the civil rights movement. He was a close advisor and friend to Martin Luther King.
Meanwhile, despite his fame, his show business career was blighted by discrimination against him because of his race. He suffered the usual indignities accorded to black Americans while touring the southern states. In Las Vegas he was not permitted to stay in hotels where he was the headlining act.
On an American TV show, sponsors strenuously objected when, during a duet with Petula Clark, she touched his arm. Other shows featuring Belafonte were abruptly cancelled because he refused orders to make the multi-racial supporting cast and dancers white only. While starring in a Hollywood movie, he was arrested by Beverly Hills police merely for taking a stroll.
Still, it’s his activism that takes centre stage for most of the film. Belafonte swiftly became a supporter of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. As you’d expect, he personally befriended Nelson Mandela. He championed projects to help poor but gifted children in Kenya, was a leading light in the “We Are the World” campaign and visibly protested against the US war in Iraq. He’s still at it now, at age 85, working as ‘a movement builder’, trying to better the lives of impoverished kids in America’s inner city ghettoes.
This is a remarkable man, who has been on hand to witness some of the most dramatic events in recent history. He has led an extraordinary life, and you do not need to be a fan of his singing to be engrossed by the film. (Which is lucky for me – I always found all that ‘day-o, day-o’ quickly wore thin.)
Still, he is scrutinised here primarily as a public figure, with his real personality (leaving aside his obviously healthy ego) remaining elusive. His children and ex-wives guardedly admit he was often absent both physically and emotionally, and often wrapped up in his own thoughts while in the same room. One suspects they could all say far more.
The reasons are clear enough: Sing Your Song was made by Belafonte’s own production company, and is thus an authorised biography: he is telling the story he wishes us to hear. Ultimately, it’s a drawback: a better, independently-minded film-maker, without a vested interest, might have made a warts-and-all Belafonte more intriguing still. Despite that caveat, it’s well worth seeking out.
Woody Allen: A Documentary
Even for those of us who have been Woody Allen devotees for 35 years, there are some nice little revelations in this account of his life and career. For instance, we all know Allen as incurably self-deprecating. But I never knew he told the studio that financed Manhattan that he would make his next film for them for free, if only they would withdraw Manhattan from release. (Manhattan, of course, is a masterpiece in the eyes of most Allen fans.)
There are several agreeable titbits of that nature in Robert Weide’s film, made over an 18-month period in which he followed Allen around and even gained access to him directing on set.
It’s an amiable documentary, which doesn’t go in for dirt-digging; for instance the scandal over Allen’s divorce from Mia Farrow, after he embarked on a relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, is glossed over swiftly.
But we do learn things about him, many of them to do with the technical aspects of his writing. He touch-types his scripts on an elderly typewriter, and when he cuts and pastes, that’s a literal description.
He has a drawer in his apartment stuffed with pages from a legal pad on which he has scrawled story ideas. He despairs of making what he considers a truly great film. He dismisses the notion that he should slow down his one-film-a-year pace, and wonders out loud what else he would do in the extra time allotted.
There are other delights here: Diane Keaton, his greatest co-star, tells ruefully affectionate stories about him. Farrow, understandably, does not, though Weide’s film treats us to excerpts of her lovely performances in films like Purple Rose of Cairo.
Yet perhaps the most fascinating part of the film deals in Allen’s early years, when he started writing gags for New York newspaper columnists while still in high school. He found managers who were convinced he could be a successful comic in his own right, and urged him to try stand-up gigs; he was so nervous and uncomfortable at first, he virtually had to be shoved on stage.
Crucially, Allen discusses the 1965 film What’s New, Pussycat?, for which he wrote the script. When the studio heavily re-wrote it to his immense displeasure, he swore he would always direct his own films and never again allow his scripts to be tampered with. (Almost 50 years on, he has kept to his promise.) The first film he directed, Take the Money and Run, was made on a low budget and to his astonishment was a big hit. “I didn’t know the first thing about film-making,” he admits now.
It may help to be an Allen fan to appreciate it, but this documentary is funny, warm and full of insight.
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