So far this year, there have been some amazing documentaries, including "Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story" and "RBG". Now we have "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom", 2013) about the legacy of Fred Rogers, who for over 30 years provided kindness and solace to children via his half hour daily television show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood".
Not wishing to do a straight biopic of Fred Rogers, always known as the ever-gentle Mr. Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", Neville instead chose to focus on Fred's ideas of how best to speak to children regarding the many important issues facing them in daily life. Convinced that television could be utilized as a positive force, Fred combined his talents as puppeteer, writer, musician and producer to bring civility to his world in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood".
Consequently, multitudes of children were mesmerized by his genuine self. Tackling such weighty issues as divorce, death, race and politics, Fred believed his task was "to make goodness attractive", which is way more difficult than it sounds.
Neville and his team, through interviews with Fred's wife, Joanne, his two sons, his sister and his TV crew, allowed Fred's voice to be heard and understood in the documentary as clearly as possible. A year was spent making "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", but according to everyone involved, it was "a charmed production from start to finish".
There are so many wonderful moments in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?". Especially memorable is the show during which Fred meets 10-year-old Jeff Erlanger, wheelchair-bound because of a spinal tumor, then facing a perilous operation. Jeff is so utterly adorable and charming and Fred's kind and loving demeanor was never more on display. I would have been a basket case --- I was sobbing uncontrollably just watching --- but Fred maintained that easy-going composure which was always present.
I'm sure David will mention this, but there is also an absolutely incredible scene of Fred meeting and communicating with Koko, the gorilla. Fred is so obviously enthralled with this giant creature, who is equally enamored with Fred --- another tear-inducing segment of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?".
With thousands of hours of footage to peruse, the filmmakers had their work cut out for them. Neville chose two masterful editors, Aaron Wickendon, who also worked with Neville on one of his other documentaries, "Best of Enemies", and Jeff Malmberg. In a film such as this, with so much material to work from and pull together, the editing is vital to the finished piece. While I was watching "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" I was struck by what a superb job these craftsmen had accomplished.
"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" brings back so many wonderful --- and some very sad --- memories. Fred Rogers' life was profound --- and his contribution to children and society through his television show is unmatched. Neville has done a great service --- especially in our current political climate --- by reminding us of the need for kindness and compassion.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
I was already a young adult when Fred Rogers and his popular children's show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", gained widespread distribution on PBS. The year was 1968, and though the program would run for over 30 years, many generations were able to experience the kindness, the goodness, and the societal value of this remarkable man.
Some of us superficially saw Fred Rogers through the prism of Saturday Night Live parodies, courtesy of Eddie Murphy. While these skits were amusing, they did nothing to enhance Fred's future legacy. Fortunately, Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville decided to make his latest documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", about Fred Rogers and the adult ideas he presented to very young children.
In fact, Neville has said "I can't think of another film I would have rather made right now". Some might correctly interpret this as a thinly veiled commentary on American politics in the age of Trump, and the ongoing divisiveness plaguing this country. Rogers passed away in 2003 at age 74, but after seeing the depth of this man's thinking and his passion for spreading good will --- let's just say we could really use him right now.
Neville's movie features so many wonderful highlights of Fred and his programming. He preached goodness and love to toddlers primarily through his beloved lion Daniel, a threadbare hand puppet that kids simply adored. Snippets of little ones hugging and kissing Daniel, accompanied by Fred's high-pitched voice, are treasures of innocence not yet lost.
The segment with Fred and Koko, the 280-pound gorilla who was taught American sign language, watched TV and was a fan of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", is amazing and alone worth the price of admission. Fred's meeting with a young boy named Jeff Erlanger facing life-threatening surgery is also remarkable. But even that is not quite as inspiring when, years later, Jeff surprises Mr. Rogers during his induction into the TV Hall of Fame in 1999.
Fred Rogers didn't shy away from serious adult issues when looking into the camera and addressing his young viewers. Subjects like divorce, politics, and assassination --- Robert Kennedy's slaying was not glossed over as one might suspect --- were discussed openly and frankly. On the lighter side, Fred maintained his weight at exactly 143 pounds, never wavering from that number. It was based on the numeric letter equivalent of the phrase "I Love You" ("I" = 1 letter, "Love" = 4 letters, and "You" = 3 letters).
On the downside, Fred was denigrated for telling children how special they are by The Wall Street Journal. The article tried to make the case that Fred's constant encouragement of young ones helped to create a generation of entitled young adults. And his gentle manner evoked rumors of Fred Rogers being gay, when actually he was happily married to Joanne for many years. She and their two sons are interviewed extensively in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?".
One final note: the producers of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" were invited to the Sundance Institute's Catalyst program where film investors listen to pitches from filmmakers. After the three-day event, Neville's documentary left fully funded, the first movie to claim that feat.
Anxious to have their picture completed and presented to the American public, the filmmakers expedited the production. Their underlying fear of possibly discovering a dark secret about Fred Rogers --- in this day and age anything is possible --- thankfully never materialized.
Neville won his Oscar for "20 Feet from Stardom" (2013), and helmed another superb documentary "Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal" (2015). "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is certainly in that class.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!