There's no doubt that Harry Belafonte has had an interesting and productive life. He came to fame in the 1950s as a calypso singer, and moved deftly between stage, screen and television. Beyond his work as an entertainer, he was a social and political activist, committed to racial equality, the civil-rights struggle and African independence, among many other causes. And anyone unfamiliar with his work in either sphere, should find Sing Your Song informative and inspirational.
But Susanna Rostock's bio-doc about Belafonte is so relentlessly hagiographic that after more than an hour of hearing Belafonte and others talk about how groundbreaking and influential the man was in seemingly everything (from variety shows to Native American rights!), one longs for some other shading. (A rare shadow: Belafonte acknowledges that his devotion to his career and causes left an absence in his family life.) It doesn't help that Belafonte narrates his own life, often using rather stilted language that sounds more read from a book than actively recalled.
The bulk of the film focuses on what Belafonte is best known for: breaking color barriers in the entertainment worlds and working with the civil-rights movement. But after the late 1960s, the film quickly jumbles up Belafonte's crusades: Vietnam, Wounded Knee, South Africa, Cuba, the Ethiopian famine and Los Angeles gang violence. The film could really use more context here, and some of the information felt fast and loose, designed to paint Belafonte in a non-stop glow. (For example: Belafonte claims genesis for the We Are the World charity project, while neither he nor the film note the earlier Band Aid success.) As such, the film ends on an odd note: Here's a talented, thoughtful, multi-faceted man, who both exploited and risked his career in support of controversial causes. But as portrayed by Rostock, he increasingly looks as one-dimensional as a plaster saint. Starts Fri., Feb. 10. Harris