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Sundance: Harry Belafonte documentary kicks off festival

January 20, 2011 | 10:33 pm

GetprevWhen most people think of Harry Belafonte, one thing typically comes to mind: "Day-O," the catchy calpyso tune the singer popularized in the 1950s.

But there's far more to Belafonte than just the "Banana Boat Song." At the opening night of the the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, a film that traces the life of the now-83-year-old performer and social activist kicked off the documentary competition.

The film's producer, Michael Cohl, the former chairman of Live Nation who is also the lead producer of Broadway's ill-fated "Spider-Man" musical, was on hand to present the documentary.

"This feels much safer," he joked. "There are no wires here. Nobody's gonna get hurt."

"Sing Your Song" is told entirely from Belafonte's point of view, with the singer eloquently narrating his life story. The documentary follows Belafonte from the outset of his career, when he was a handsome and charming singer who was one of the few successful African American performers. It goes on to detail his work in the civil rights movement -- when he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. -- then moves on to the present day, showing his efforts to help imprisoned youth.

Part of the impetus for the project, Belafonte said after the screening, came from the death of actor and close friend Marlon Brando. People knew so little about Brando's true intentions that Belafonte said he wanted the opportunity to tell his own story "fully." But he was terrified by the prospect that the documentary would become "self-aggrandizing."

Oprah Winfrey's team is at the festival, scouting for programming to air on her new cable network, OWN. And "Sing Your Song" seems like exactly the type of thing she would be interested in: a motivational look at an important figure in history who inspired change.

Winfrey had been scheduled to attend a party and cast dinner for the film along with Tyler Perry over the weekend. (The two have paired up at Sundance before, on 2009's "Precious.") But now, neither is expected to attend the gatherings, said a publicist who is organizing the events and did not offer any further explanation.

With or without Winfrey's approval, it was clear that the audience in the Eccles Theatre on Thursday evening held a deep respect for Belafonte: When he emerged on stage after the movie ended, walking slowly with cane in hand, moviegoers rose to their feet to clap enthusiastically.

That pleasant response was abruptly cut short, however, when Belafonte began to take questions from the crowd. One African American man promptly began ranting somewhat unintelligibly. He said that Belafonte was an inspiration but that "white people" controlled Sundance and that the festival had rejected a film of his.

"Do you have a question?" Belafonte quipped. "I think you should rest easy, bro, because my first 100 submissions to Sundance were turned down too."

-- Amy Kaufman

Twitter.com/AmyKinLA

Photo: Harry Belafonte attends the premiere of "Sing Your Song" in Park City, Utah. Credit: Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

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Harry Belafonte is the most honest, sincere and talented person I have ever seen. I have followed him since I was a young teenager and will always be his number one fan. I am 57 years old and still am in love with him.

Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" song was a popular Freedom Song in civil rights era, see http://www.folkways.si.edu/listen2.aspx?type=preview&trackid=29292

Well I took a trip on a Greyhound bus!
Freedom come, and it won't be long
To end segregation, and this we must!
Freedome com, and it won't be long


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