An exploration of the lessons, ethics, and legacy of iconic children’s television host, Fred Rogers.
Director: Morgan Neville
Stars: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
One of my least favorite joke constructions on Twitter is the one that goes “[Fairly frivolous thing] is so good. We don’t deserve it.” As if we’re somehow so flawed a society that we haven’t done the good deeds necessary to deserve that bluntly honest Real Housewife or that above-average broadcast comedy or the grotesque new drink from Starbucks.
But if I’m being completely honest, maybe we never deserved Fred Rogers. Yet as I think that, I know how antithetical that would be to the message Mr. Rogers delivered again and again in over 900 television episodes. If he thought we all deserved love and our individual identities and our feelings, however painful they seemed, Mr. Rogers would say we deserved that Real Housewife or Nicole Richie’s performance on Great News or all manner of coffee concoctions, and Mr. Rogers would say we deserved him, if the whole concept didn’t embarrass him.
Watching the Sundance premiere of Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I found myself repeatedly flashing back to my childhood hours spent watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, scenes I’d forgotten, songs that came back in an instant and lessons I’d simply internalized. I found myself feeling increasingly angry at the legion of idiotic Fox News pundits who have demonized Mr. Rogers in recent years for having the temerity to create a community — a global neighborhood — in which everybody was valued. And I found myself feeling sad for the current generation that doesn’t have a Mr. Rogers, whether they deserve him or not.
It’s hard for me to judge Won’t You Be My Neighbor? on artistic grounds because mostly it’s a documentary you want to hug.
That does not mean, mind you, that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an exercise in nostalgia. As the title suggests, Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) is approaching this as an invitation back into Fred Rogers’ mind and into his worldview, which feels plenty contemporary. Starting with a 1967 interview in which, sitting at a piano, he expresses the desire to “help children through some of the difficult modulations of life,” the documentary traces that desire and how it was carried through decades of television and the irony that, as his son puts it, “for someone who was in television, he hated television.”
It isn’t really a biopic, and other than learning about the existence of self-explanatory childhood nickname “Fat Freddy,” we meet Rogers at a life crossroads of television, the seminary and the University of Pittsburgh’s program in Child Development and Child Care, forming a unique moral profile. So often, Mr. Rogers’ ideology flowed through him in moments as immediately memorable as his famous congressional testimony on behalf of PBS, but also when he attacked issues head-on within the show, like trying to help children of RFK’s assassination or the Challenger disaster or in the integrated and diverse TV universe he crafted. We also see how many of his own fears and insecurities manifest themselves through Daniel Tiger, who also serves as a Rogers alter ego in dreamy animated sequences within the doc, and other characters in the land of Make-Believe. Like, did you know or remember that the first week of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had an arc about King Friday the 13th attempting to build a wall around his kingdom because he was afraid of change? Timely, right?
The swells of emotion that the documentary produces are sometimes obvious. I can’t watch Mr. Rogers sing with wheelchair-bound Jeff Erlanger without tearing up, can you? But some scenes I either hadn’t seen before or didn’t remember, and they absolutely floored me. There’s a duet that Daniel Tiger and Lady Aberlin sing together in which he wonders if he’s a mistake and she reassures him, and he ultimately isn’t wholly convinced that is conceptually towering, for either a children’s show or a show for grownups. Over and over, the clips prove the faith Mr. Rogers put in kids. Again and again, the documentary features shots of worshipful fans interacting with him that prove his confidence was rewarded.
It’s not a behind-the-scenes story of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, though its talking heads include producers, stagehands and castmembers such as David “Mr. McFeely” Newell, Francois “Officer” Clemmons, Joe “Handyman” Negri, and the footage from the vast Fred Rogers archives includes outtakes and gags. It’s not a man-behind-the-myth story, though Rogers’ widow and two sons appear, and certain speculations about Mr. Rogers are addressed. It’s also definitely not a “here’s all the famous people who grew up watching the show and want to say funny things about his legacy” celebration. Yo-Yo Ma is as famous as the talking heads get, and I’m pretty sure Michael Keaton is visible in the background of an old shot but never mentioned. The easiest way to dislike Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is to be disappointed with it for not wanting to be those things.
So maybe I have a slight twinge at the lack of mention of Chef Brockett or Donkey Hodie, at the choice not to go into all the jobs Mr. Rogers visited, all the arts he introduced viewers to and those 13 original operas the show staged. There’s more to Fred Rogers than any 93-minute documentary can contain, and it was easy for me not to lament what Neville wasn’t doing and just to embrace what Rogers was.
– Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter