Harry Belafonte and Taylor Branch

Harry Belafonte and Taylor Branch

One measure of a great biography is that you start into it thinking you know the subject. and by the end of it, you admit to yourself that you knew only the tip of the iceberg.

"Sing Your Song," n HBO documentary film on the life and word of Harry Belafonte premiering at 10 p.m. Monday is a great biography in just that way.

Yes, he's the guy who sang "Banana Boat (Day-O)" in the 1950s, and has a huge seller of an album (back when people still knew what record album and LP meant) in "Calypso." But he is also a Tony-Award-winning actor, an Emmy-Award-winning TV performer and producer and a blacklisted performer who was a target of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.

To her great credit, filmmaker Susan Rostock chronicles all of that and more. The biggest part of the "more" is her insight into the chord that brings all the strains of Belafonte's rich and remarkable life together: his commitment to civil rights and social activism.

He was, for example, one of Dr. Martin Luther King's go-to guys when the civil rights leader needed a mission carried out -- or money to carry on his crusade. Belafonte shared his show-biz wealth and risked his life for Dr. King and the cause he led. And you will hear family members talk about the toll that took on them -- even as they understood their father's need to be totally engaged in the civic life of the nation.

Here's a podcast of a radio review I did for WYPR-FM (88.1), Baltimore's NPR station. Please check it out, and I hope it will encourage you to watch this splendid film.

After hearing the radio preview, Jed Dietz, of the Maryland Film Festival, sent an email telling me how "Sing Your Song" was received when it closed last year's festival in Baltimore.

"... The whole audience rose and sang the Banana Boat song during end title credits." Dietz said. "I've never seen anything quite like it."

I wish I had been there. But that's how moving this film is. I guarantee you will want to cheer, sing, dance or do something when the final credits roll.

Dietz was also kind enough to send along an image of Baltimore author Taylor Branch interviewing Belafonte at the festival.