I remember growing up with the Pittsburgh produced, PBS aired Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and I seemed to have good memories about it. I'm not sure at what point cynicism was introduced to my life and our paths separated for the balance of Rogers' life, but on the surface it would appear that Rogers maintained a certain sense of innocence and respect for children and the adult cast members around him that could certainly be appreciated in 2018. And Won't You Be My Neighbor attempts to give us that.
The documentary from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) interviews a menagerie of folks who had some sort of connection to Rogers in his life or through the show. Old cast and crew members share their thoughts on how he worked and what he was like. If you leave those segments thinking they may have sort of lacked a little on the latter, interviews with Rogers' wife and two sons. People who may have had a special connection to Rogers are interviewed. And Rogers gets a chance to share his thoughts as well through old interview footage and congressional testimony, the latter we'll get to in a second.
The film tracks Rogers' origin story, growing up and going to seminary until he noticed children's television and thought he could do something on his own for children, and his work eventually became Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. He was different from other children's entertainment personalities in that he listened to children and even treated them with a respect and dignity. When public television funding was threatened Rogers went to congress, dazzling a committee chairman and leaving the crowd applauding. Some of the backstories on the characters he voiced are given requisite attention as well.
While Rogers' sensibilities personally and on his program stayed the same, society's sensibilities seemed to change as well and on occasion he had the chance to express some of those on the show, whether it was in the aftermath of Bobby Kennedy's murder or to show a soft spoken rebuke to racism simply by soaking his feet next to the show's African-American cast member Officer Clemmons, and they proved to be effective in their individual rights. Incredulity at Rogers' message and persona was expressed as well, sometimes in his direction, but he generally let it roll off his back. His bigger, primary concern was the children, and what type of messages they received in media and broadcasting.
Won't You Be My Neighbor tends to go along with this to a certain degree, but as the film transpires you eventually see what Neville did, which was Rogers was that type of person, and his values, while perhaps derided in some pockets have been a source of justifiable nostalgia for others. Something that Rogers tended to do frequently with people is ask them to take a moment of silence and think about someone that was there for them or supported them, and it is something that like Rogers' show is simple and kind of powerful. Francois Clemmons discusses his closeted homosexuality and Rogers' acceptance of it and him, and his profound appreciation of having Rogers in his life. Rogers' love is a love a lot of people could use, which is perhaps something we could all use in 2018.
The beauty of Won't You Be My Neighbor is, like Fred Rogers, it is a story told simply and has a lot of poignancy behind it. If you're not familiar with Fred Rogers or Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, this film is as good a jumping off point as anything I've come across, and is probably on a short list of Oscar-nominated documentaries.The Disc:
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film juggles numerous film and video sources in a variety of formats, and all looks as good as can be, whether it's brittle and breaking black and white 4:3 film or anamorphically presented contemporary interviews. Colors are as natural as they're going to get, the image lacks any DNR in the modern interviews and looks vivid without oversaturation, particularly looking lush on the outdoor trolley shots. This turned out to be a nice transfer.The Sound:
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for this, which given the source material isn't a surprise. Dialogue sounds good, the score is somewhat immersive without being ostentatious, the subwoofer comes close to low end fidelity without engaging, and the soundtrack lacks any noticeable channel panning or directional effects. For what it is, it was fine.The Extras:
Nothing, which is a bummer, but given how much raw material there is on Rogers out there, understandable.Final Thoughts:
With Won't You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville has given new relevance to Fred Rogers in a way that some may not realize, but all should experience in some manner or fashion. It was a nice nostalgia roll through time for me, and really gets you to your soul at the end of it. The disc looks and sounds good, everyone should go and see this one.