Monday, March 11, 2019

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the story of the life and ideals of Fred Rogers who created and hosted the show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as it’s told through archival footage of Rogers and the people who worked on his show. The film is a documentary that explores the creation of the show and its impact during its run from February 19, 1968 to August 31, 2001 that would impact countless generations who would learn about humanity through this show. The result is a touching and evocative film from Morgan Neville.

On February 19, 1968 during what was one of the tumultuous years of the 20th Century, an educational children TV show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted nationally on the National Educational Television network as it introduced children to a world of kindness and imagination hosted by an ordained minister in Fred Rogers. Shot in a studio in Pittsburgh, the show would have an incredible run as it was briefly halted by Rogers in 1976 when Rogers wanted to do a different show that appealed to adults in 1978 entitled Old Friends… New Friends that only lasted a year until Rogers chose to revive his old show until its final broadcast on August 31, 2001 on PBS. The film explores the creation of the series as well as the things that inspired Rogers to create this show at a time when TV was still a new medium.

Featuring interviews with Rogers’ widow Joanne, his two sons John and Jim, his sister Elaine, and various people who worked on the show including Francois Scarborough Clemmons and David Newell as well as those impacted by the show. The film chronicles Rogers’ early life as he and Joanne both admit they come from backgrounds where they couldn’t express their anger and anxieties as Rogers would find that outlet on his show where the puppet in the tiger Daniel would represent the fear and anxiety while the puppet King Friday the 13th is a representation of anger and frustration. The show would have Rogers use those characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe while he would talk about real things in the scenes that he appears.

Morgan Neville would talk to Rogers’ family and the people who worked on the show along with an interview with classical musician Yo-Yo Ma and the parents of disability rights activist Jeff Erlanger talk about Rogers’ importance to the world. Even when the show arrived at a time of chaos where Rogers brought kindness and understanding as scenes of him washing his feet to cool himself in a small pool and share the pool with Clemmons was a simple gesture of kindness during a time of racial turmoil. Even as Rogers knew that kids are a lot smarter and would ask questions where Rogers was critical about a lot of the shows made for children as he didn’t want to dumb things down. Even to the point where he would film something and let the camera linger on for a bit to show something simple as some said it was very radical of him to do these things in a world that is consumer-driven.

With the aid of film editors Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden as well as sound editor Pete Horner in cultivating all of the archival footage and audio of Rogers’ show and various interviews he gave. Neville showcases Rogers as he is working with crew as well as socializing with other people including his family where his sons admit that he was different at home but with not much difference to who he was on TV. Still, Rogers did showcase some of the anxieties he endured as it’s told through audio archives and animated sequences created by animators Ariel Costa and Rodrigo Miguel Rangel that has Daniel the Tiger play that air of sadness, frustration, and anxiety that Rogers was facing. Even as Neville would use archival footage of a Senate hearing Rogers did in 1969 that would help the show get public funding through a simple speech that would win over a senator who was already going to cut the funding for what would become PBS.

With the help of cinematographer Graham Willoughby, Neville’s direction for the interviews are simple as it play into the small town that Rogers lived in that he based the show on for the real world section as well as the Pittsburgh trolley. Even in moments during the interviews that include a museum of many of the props of the show as well as comments from people who worked and loved the show as they talk about what had been lost since his passing in February 27, 2003 at the age of 74. One person commented about the day of Rogers’ memorial where there were protesters outside of the service claiming Rogers had lied to them as he had seen a child holding up a sign with a sad face as he thought about what Rogers would’ve done. Even as there is this sense of criticism towards Rogers’ ideals from people who believe that everything he said is a lie which isn’t true.

While there have been parodies of Rogers with Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live skit Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood being the most famous of them all. Rogers was amused by them as Murphy revealed to be a fan of Rogers show as he was elated to see him. The film’s music by Jonathan Kirkscey is wonderful for its low-key yet somber string music with pieces performed by Yo-Yo Ma while music supervisors Jody Friedman and Jennifer Lanchart provide a soundtrack with the songs that Rogers wrote as well as the music of the times during the years when Rogers’ show was on the air.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a tremendous film from Morgan Neville. It’s a documentary film that explore the life and work of a man who was trying to provide something substantial to children by talking directly to them about the joys of the world. Even as he offered solace to events that were dark as well as did it with patience and care as the film showcase a world of goodness that is in dire need during these troubled times. In the end, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a spectacular film from Morgan Neville.

Morgan Neville Films: (The Cool School) – (20 Feet from Stardom) – (Best of Enemies) – They'll Love Me When I'm Dead

© thevoid99 2019


Brittani Burnham said...

I think the most extraordinary thing about this documentary is that it was interesting to those like myself who didn't watch Mr. Rogers religiously, as well as those who were big fans. I was always aware of him, I just never watched his program. I enjoyed this and am still shocked it didn't get an Oscar nomination.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-I didn't watch Mr. Rogers much as well as a child yet I was moved by this documentary. The fact that it didn't get an Oscar nod is proof that the Oscars pretty much fucking suck.