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Review: 'Sing Your Song': HBO's take on Belafonte

Harry Belafonte signs books after "A Conversation With"

Harry Belafonte signs books after "A Conversation With" at the Hamptons International Film Festival in Sag Harbor Saturday evening. (October 15, 2011) Credit: Photo by Gordon M. Grant

THE SHOW "Sing Your Song," HBO, tonight at 10

REASON TO WATCH Harry Belafonte's life story, as told by Belafonte.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Born in Harlem 84 years ago, Belafonte takes viewers on a long tour of his remarkable life, from the early days at the Village Vanguard to the Hollywood years, and on to his role in the civil-rights movement and (later) his activism in many other causes. This is less a musical biography -- although there is certainly some footage from classics like the 1956 album "Calypso" -- and much more a political one, along with one or two scores settled (notably an unscrupulous former manager who talked to the FBI about him). Belafonte explains that his mother's "instructions [were] that I should never awaken in a day when there wasn't something on our agenda that would set the course of the undermining of injustice." His recollections of touring in the Jim Crow era are harrowing -- like the story of a cop who threatened to kill him if he urinated -- but the experiences also served to galvanize his real life's purpose. Belafonte, in fact, played a vital role in the civil-rights movement, by organizing concerts, and drawing other stars -- from Charlton Heston to Tony Bennett -- to the cause. Julian Bond, longtime chairman of the NAACP and a civil-rights leader, said, "Harry did this over and over and over and over and over and over again." There are also many TV clips: Did you know, for example, that Belafonte briefly guest-hosted the "Tonight Show"? (He did, in 1968.) Or that he appeared almost twice on CBS' "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"? The second time was edited out, replaced -- says Tommy Smothers -- with a political ad for Richard M. Nixon.

MY SAY Belafonte has been so thoroughly demonized on the Fox News Channel that it's probably not a bad idea for viewers to check this out if only for reasons of balance. He has indeed led an amazing life, as lavishly documented here. But this film, by Susanne Rostock, also often feels like an official portrait, and -- as such -- at times a static one. There is no give or take with Belafonte, who talks to someone off-camera, while his memories are so carefully parsed that you may sometimes feel like you are reading this doc as opposed to watching it. By far the best parts are the first two-thirds, with the star taking center stage in history as it unfolds. The last part is an unsatisfying blur -- a disjointed portrait of a cause junkie who drifts from one injustice to the next. Moreover, there is also no mention of his more unfortunate effusions, like the time he hugged Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.

BOTTOM LINE Richly documented, but tends to become long-winded -- or just plain winded -- by the end.


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