Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
User ReviewsReview this title
This doc is a love letter to Mr. Rogers so it is what you'd expect, no surprises, a few more interviews than I've seen in the past all arranged well.
Understandably, the cumulative effect of all of this frequently results in just the opposite of what the TV folk seek, with the critics disliking (hating) much if not most of what is put in front of them as they become progressively more and more exhausted, crabby and jaded.
At least this was the predictable cycle until one Saturday morning in a Beverly Hills hotel ballroom when Fred McFeely Rogers _ the public television host and children's advocate known as "Mr. Rogers" _ stepped up to address this beleaguered and suspicious throng of critics, who by now were ready to start throwing their plates of salmon at anyone who took to the podium.
Rogers calmly took their measure, and instead of immediately diving in and beginning to talk, stood there silently and motionless until not a sound could be heard in the cavernous room. Then, with all eyes on him, he began to talk in a whisper.
He told a story about how during the Great Depression, his mother would bake pies and leave them on the window sill of their home for passing hobos. The pies would consistently disappear, and sometimes, rarely, the hobos would leave a penny or two, at most a nickel, as payment. Rogers explained that his mother didn't want anything in return, but accepted the money because it helped the hobos retain their dignity.
By the time Rogers finished his talk, the critics were completely won over. More than a few coughs could be heard reverberating around the hall, masking the embarrassed sobs of critics who were being paid to be above it all.
It was with this memory in mind that I went with my family to see Morgan Neville's new documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", which tells the story of Rogers and his iconic children's show, which ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers, who passed away 15 years ago, had a simple mantra: "Love is at the root of everything."
That certainly sounds good on paper and when addressing children, you think, but how does it play in the real world? As it turns out, pretty damned good.
In an early appearance before Congress as he helps seek funding for the newly created Public Broadcasting System, Rogers faces a steely and adversarial U.S. Sen. John Orlando Pastore (D-R.I.), who had already made up his mind to pan PBS. Pastore stares. And stares. Rogers explains, in a shaky voice that would make Jimmy Stewart blush, that the best way to illustrate the value of PBS would be to recite the words to a song he had written for his show. As he does, Pastore's eyes become moist. He blinks. "You've just earned your $20 million!" he blurts abruptly, and the room erupts in applause.
Rogers, upset with breakneck cartoon violence and frantic children's fare designed to sell products rather than to educate, made his half-hour show completely different, singing, offering gentle advice (often delivered by a cat puppet on his hand delivered in a falsetto voice), and having thought-provoking conversations with series regulars like David "Mr. McFeely" Newell, Francois "Officer Clemmons" Clemmons and Joe "Handyman" Negri, as well as occasional celebrity guests like cellist Yo-Yo Ma (who admitted that meeting the TV icon "scared the hell out of me").
In one segment, Rogers, visibly angry that children were injuring themselves by trying to emulate superheroes like Superman, carefully explains the difference between pretending and real life.
Rogers refused to duck tough subjects like death (of humans and pets), assassinations (in this instance, of Robert Kennedy), divorce, physical handicaps _ and even racism. Clemmons, an African-American, confides that he was reluctant to play a cop on the show. Not only did Rogers convince him, he took a shot at racists by staging a routine in which he invites Clemmons to soak his feet alongside his own in a small wading pool, and even shares a towel with him. (To illustrate just how risky this was for the time, director Neville intercuts footage of white lifeguards pouring bleach into a pool where black youngsters are swimming.)
We also learn of Rogers' own biases. Clemmons tells of how Rogers reacted when someone from the show discovered that the then-closeted Clemmons had been to a gay bar. "I had a good time!" says Clemmons, who was then told that any future bar visits would result in his termination from the show. Clemmons says that Mr. Rogers "eventually came around" to acceptance.
In a straightforward yet somehow understated way just like you-know-who, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" effectively spikes a lot of ridiculous rumors that sprang up about Rogers, like the one that he had a "torso full of tattoos" _ in this instance, we see Mr. Rogers swimming his daily mile in the local pool. So there.
Alas, we also are shown "parodies" of Rogers performed by the likes of Johnny Carson and Jim Carrey, which, especially now, come across as clumsy, mean-spirited and unfunny, bits that clearly hurt Rogers, whose only response to them was that "some" were humorous. Some things never change.
I find it remarkable that a documentary like this can be found in theaters also screening slam-bang, big-budget fare. But it is, and drawing a surprisingly tidy number of viewers at that.
I recommend this for everyone, not only those who remember watching Mr. Rogers' show, but young people who probably don't realize what all the fuss is about. It's an important reminder that goodness rises to the top even in the worst of times.
I didn't grow up with Mr. Rogers, I hadn't even seen an episode of his show until my later years. Despite this, I came into Won't You Be My Neighbor? as eagerly as possible. When I came out, I was almost speechless. The conversation I had with the people I'd seen the movie with was almost too jumbled to be understandable. I was at a loss for words, and it was a good thing. Few documentaries have been able to capture the spirit, humanity, and works of a person this well.
The tone of the movie is set almost immediately; old footage plays showing a much younger Rogers playing the piano and giving reason for his ambitions. He doesn't seem to be too full of himself, and the concept he has in mind is one that is both humble and sweet. Even before he's given the ability to use his talents, he seems as if he's right next to them. The strong point of this film, for sure, is it's humane portrayal of Rogers. It doesn't just linger on the fact that he did good things, it explores what made him want to do those good things. His motivations make sense, and he, as a person, nearly brought tears to my ears several times. I didn't cry at all, but I'd be lying if I said I never came close to it.
There really isn't much else to say about this. This is a profound, well-made documentary that does its job excellently. I can't think of a single thing that made the engrossing experience of watching Roger come to life on a big screen any less engrossing. I loved it and will most likely see it again when it finally gets the wide release it deserves.
Director Neville (BEST OF ENEMIES: BUCKLEY VS VIDAL, 2015) has produced numerous biopics on musicians ranging from Keith Richards to Muddy Waters to Johnny Cash to Brian Wilson. His subject this time out was known for his singing the show's familiar opening number, and his lyrical legacy was his substantial impact on many generations of children. Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister and, in the early days of television, recognized that violent cartoons were not appropriate programming for the formative childhood years. Even in the early years, he was an outlier with sincerity and wholesomeness in entertainment. He never shied away from tough topics - not even death - whether it was the assassination of Robert Kennedy or a dead fish in the aquarium on set. He spoke directly to children in a voice and language they understood.
There are interviews with fellow cast members, long timer crew members, and relatives, including his wife Joanne. We hear Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons on the show) discuss how Mr. Rogers addressed Clemmons' homosexuality and race, adding poignancy to the shared televised foot bath. Archival footage takes us back to the early years, and we see Lady Aberlin and Daniel Tiger in both black and white and color segments. We learn that the puppet Daniel most resembled the personality of the host himself ... a quiet, patient, compassionate being who cared about others.
We see footage of Fred Rogers testifying in front of a Senate sub-committee to prevent funding for PBS from being eliminated, and we see numerous cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes. Mostly we see the approach of a man who built a legacy on kindness and human decency ... a lifetime pursuit of uniting that led to struggles with depression. His obsession with 143 - both his weight and his code for "I love you" provides some insight into his personality, and mostly we hear others speak of his lasting impact.
Rather than comedy and pranks, Mr. Rogers was intent on making kids feel safe and secure in a scary world. Sure he educated - often subtly - but it was his innate ability to comfort that kept kids coming back. There are naysayers who say he is responsible for generations of entitled kids who grew into entitled adults, but the film addresses this by showing Roger's commencement address where he clearly explains the "special" label. His final show was in 2000 and he died in 2003. His legacy is simple yet powerful. We can each do better. We can each be better. We can each be better neighbors.
The film is an inspiring tribute to Rogers, a pacifist and former ordained Presbyterian minister who, over a period of more than thirty years on television, stood for the idea that there is a divine spark in all of us that needs to be nurtured. Looking at Rogers' life and career through the eyes of those who knew him the best, those interviewed include his wife Joanne, his two sons John and James who describe the challenge of having "the second Christ as a father," cast members David Newell (Mr. McFeely), François Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), and Joe Negri ("Handyman"), and guests such as acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo-Ma.
Rogers was originally drawn to educational television as a result of his disdain for the demeaning and violent cartoons that marked children's television programming at the time. While his show was usually lighthearted, he did not shun controversial topics such as death, feeling blue, divorce, and assassination which he talked about with the children after Bobby Kennedy was killed. While Neville does not go into any depth about Rogers' personal or political life, it does single out his stand against the Vietnam War, his bringing an African-American teacher and a group of black students into his home and, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, his invitation to a black police officer (Clemmons) to be on his show during which they sat and talked together with their feet in a wading pool.
Also documented is Rogers' 1969 testimony before the United States Senate requesting a $20 million grant to continue funding PBS after their budget had been cut because of the Vietnam War. At the hearing, he won over the reluctant Rhode Island Senator John Pastore by reciting the lyrics to the song "What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?" After listening to the words, Pastore declared, "I think it's wonderful. I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million." Teased by classmates for being overweight as a boy (they called him "Fat Freddie"), Rogers never forgot the pain of being an outsider and had to deal with his own problems of self-esteem and depression his whole life.
Rogers' wife Joanne tells us that he used his puppets including Daniel Striped Tiger to reflect on his most vulnerable feelings, one of ten voices that he used on the program. One of the most moving sequences is his conversation with Jeff Erlanger, a severely disabled ten-year-old, in which they talk openly about disability and the sadness that often accompanies it. To make sure we know that he was not a saint, Neville recounts how Rogers told Clemmons not to be seen frequenting a gay bar because the show would lose sponsors, but also makes clear that he eventually came around to fully accept him regardless of his sexual preferences.
The centerpiece of Won't You Be My Neighbor? is not politics, however, but Mister Rogers' ability to touch the lives of children and make them feel special, many of whom responded to him with lifelong affection. Accused of promoting a feeling of entitlement in each child, Rogers said, "Only people who take the time to see our work can begin to understand the depth of it." Professor Michael Long, the author of the 2015 book "Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers," says that he spent his life assuring children that no matter what they look like, no matter who they were, no matter where they came from, deep within them was something that was lovable and capable of loving." Especially today when some children are being used as political pawns, it is inspiring to be reminded of what kindness and love is all about.
I'm sad to say I've allowed Pixar, Dreamworks, and YouTube Kids to become white noise in my house as a means of pacifying rambunctious children rather than putting forth my best self in genuinely communicating with them and here is Mr. Rogers telling gently but sternly that that is not okay, especially since such programming for all of its CGI dazzle falls woefully short of Mr. Rogers' gold standard for children's programming.
As the documentary points out, Mr. Rogers kept a slow pace making the most of pauses and silence in stark contrast to the ever-accelerating pace of children's programming that treats children as future consumers rather than as a son or daughter of God who deserves to be treated with love, respect and dignity as Mr. Rogers, an ordained minister, did.
This documentary helped me appreciate anew the calm reassuring voice Fred Rogers was to millions of children who've grown up in an increasingly tumultuous world as he unflinchingly addressed such topics as "assassination" in the aftermath of RFK's assassination, "death", "divorce", etc. and helped children to come to terms with their own feelings of sadness, fear, etc. about such grownup issues that American society has grappled with - and shows us what a real "safe space" for children should look like - not a place to curl up and suck our thumbs and pretend the big, bad outside world doesn't exist but rather a place where children are gently and lovingly taught to deal with those things that world throws at them.
The segment about Francois Clemmons was especially moving; The footbath Rogers shared with Mr. Clemmons was as powerful a statement for its time about racial equality as that which Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry made by putting Michelle Nichols as Uhura on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I was especially touched when Clemmons tearfully relayed recalling the moment he realized that Mr. Rogers statement "I love you just the way you are" was directed at him, a gay man, and bespoke a love and acceptance that Clemmons never got from his father - inspiring Clemmons to view Mr. Rogers as a surrogate father the likes of which he didn't have growing up.
I was very glad to see Mr. Rogers' musical intelligence - his ability to write, sing and most importantly genuinely communicate through music - discussed in the film, and my only wish would have been to see Johnny Costa's indelible musical contribution to "Mr. Rogers' neighborhood" given fair treatment. The beloved Peanuts holiday specials would be what they are without Vince Guaraldi and "Mr. Rogers' neighborhood"'s legacy wouldn't be what it is today without Johnny Costa's brilliant jazz piano accompaniments. Such brilliance and simplicity in musical language with those well-beloved jazz chord progressions goes hand-in-hand with the Christian overtones of the messages conveyed in both Mr. Rogers' songs and "Christmas time is here" from the Peanuts Christmas special and endears the audience of children young and old all the more to such programming. Conversely, we should be warned that "the man that hath no music in himself...is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils...Let no such man be trusted" - a line from another beautiful piece of music, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" (with its text adapted from Shakespeare's "music of the spheres" portion of Act V Scene 1 from his "Merchant of Venice") Vaughan Williams' masterpeice with its message about the importance of music in the eternities moved another beloved musical giant, Sergei Rachmaninoff - who wrote his "Vespers" in two weeks despite no professed musical affiliation - to tears.
Continuing on a divine note, thanks to this documentary, I've come to appreciate the extraordinary and unique ministry of Fred Rogers that in its own way stands alongside those of C.S. Lewis, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Jeffrey R. Holland. The genuine sincerity, authority, intelligence and eloquence with which such men speak to their intended auidences transcends religious affiliation, titles, and physical trappings - wherever such ministering angels like these men go, endearing music that evokes fond memories isn't far behind.
"Mr. Rogers would be upset if he knew how the writers turned his philosophy into a leftist agenda." Interviews with his wife say otherwise. She says he would be mortified by the way children are being torn from their parents (Today Show with Megyn Kelly)
"Despite some genuine insights into a wonderful man, the movie overall pushes liberal politics." The only thing it 'pushes' is basic human decency. I guess this conservative reviewer is admitting that is not part of the conservative agenda (I know that is not the case, I know some conservatives who are incredibly decent human beings).
"There is a cameo of a smiling Hilary Clinton" Yes, for an entire 1/2 second where she was incidental to a crowd where he was making an appearance.
"and soon after a clip with no context to it making a FoxNews host look nasty." There most certainly was context - the context that idiots at Fox News were blaming him for the entitlement culture, which was utter nonsense. The only thing that makes Brian Kilmeade (the host in question) look nasty is the nasty comments he makes.
"This is not a heartwarming movie."... unless you actually have a heart.
"This is a definite, deliberate political agenda in time to influence voters before the Fall midterms." Politics are never mentioned although there is a parallel with a scene from the first episode of MRN where King Friday the 13th fears changes and builds a wall. If anyone takes exception to that scene they need to think about the real reason it bothers them.
"Playing on emotions" Emotions are a part of being human. But I wouldn't say it plays on them, it evokes them. That's what good film making does.
"using people with disabilities to advance a political agenda." Jeff Erlanger (the person with disabilities in question) was a personal friend of Fred Rogers. Go to YouTube and watch "Fred Rogers inducted into the TV Hall of Fame" Fred's reaction to seeing Jeff (now an adult) is the most genuine human reaction you will ever see, prompting Fred to 'rush the stage' at his own honoring. If that doesn't make you cry you truly have no soul.
"It is insulting to Mr. Rogers memory." Mr Rogers would like you regardless.
The film chronicles Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and children's television host, by emphasizing his primary work on the show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The film discusses Rogers' life and legacy with a wide variety of individuals close to him; each represents a unique, diverse and wholly refreshing viewpoint on the man, so much so that no interview or piece of information in the documentary seems or feels deficient in necessity. This is a key part of what elevates this documentary above other nonfiction or other examples factually-centered filmmaking, but it is not the only thing that makes this film special. The film also does a good job examining Rogers as a human being--and this includes being a human susceptible to flaws, as we all are. All too often, biographical documentaries of revered figures attempt to only portray their subjects in the most flattering light possible. Such a one-sided attempt at filmmaking, even when a generally "good" person is being depicted, fails to portray the subject's personality in the documentary of having multiple dimensions. The film frankly explains, for example, how Rogers was initially uncomfortable that another actor on the show was gay (unfortunate, but unsurprising given the time period.) That said, Rogers' positive contributions to society and to American children are the primary focus of the film--as they should be. His work served as a thoughtful and measured alternative to much of the schlocky television programming of the late 20th century.
Finally, this documentary is remarkably emotionally powerful. It would have been easy to make this film feel sappy and sentimental, but it wisely avoids such traps. The film shoots directly from the heart to the gut, and truly makes you feel something--and something great--about Rogers and his legacy. It's refreshing to be able to analyze human decency, such as what made Rogers unique, during a sad moment in history when our political climate is severely lacking in it. All in all, this is an excellent documentary and one that I am very happy to recommend. 9/10
I don't recall watching too much Mr. Rogers when I was younger, but I did watch some episodes. Let's just say it wasn't particularly my first choice in TV because I don't recall myself being very interested in the show. I didn't think it was bad, I just think I was more interested in stuff like Bob the Builder and The Wiggles. But after watching this documentary, I kinda wish I watched the show more than I did. They just don't make shows this deeply emotional, intelligent, and kindhearted anymore. And I assure you that it impossible to find a creator who can understand kids' struggles and emotions as well as Fred Rogers did. The documentary is essentially about Rogers and his conception of the show and it demonstrates the importance of the message that he gave to millions of kids around the country.
I'm just gonna say it: this is probably not only my second favorite movie of the year so far, but probably my second favorite documentary EVER. I've watched many documentaries in the past few years; some are good, but some unfortunately just don't work. However, I've only seen one documentary that has had as much care and as much emotion poured into the film-making: Tower, my favorite documentary. This is a very close second, however.
In this documentary, every bit of footage is utilized in the best way possible. There's recent interviews with Rogers' friends, family, and coworkers, archive footage of Rogers and the show, and even animated sequences designed to represent his emotions and inner turmoil. All of these are combined seamlessly in order to create the best possible documentation of this complex and unbelievably kind man. It never feels like it drags on in certain areas. Every bit of footage is used to make an impact rather than pad the running time.
Besides the film-making aspect poured into it, the film excels on an emotional level. The best documentaries aren't just informative: they make you care about the subject. And this one certainly succeeds. To me, it painted Rogers as a normal (but abnormally nice) man who did something extraordinary, yet still struggled with insecurity. The film was clearly made by people who have a deep admiration for the message Rogers was trying to convey through his show. Or rather, his art. And the message in question is something that is near-impossible to come by in this era.
Ok, at this point, I'm not really gonna review anymore. I just need to convey my deep respect for this man.
Fred Rogers is a genius. There's just no arguing against that. Every shot, every sketch, and every song in the show is used to convey a surprisingly complex message that kids need in their lives. And Rogers, who spoke to kids as equals no matter what, thought that they needed to know about the tragic events that were occurring in the world. From Challenger's explosion, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and even the threat of nuclear war, Mr. Rogers covered it all. But arguably the greatest message he conveyed was an anti-racism statement, where he rested his feet in a pool with fellow cast member Francois Clemmons (who was African American), to symbolize the pointlessness having of segregated pools. Keep in mind that this was very radical for the time, but it nevertheless conveyed something important. One particular scene in the documentary however, was so sweet and connected with me in a deeply personal way, to the point it just made bawl. Basically, it was a song sung by Rogers' puppet, Daniel Tiger, about his struggles with self-worth while Betty Aberlin encouraged him. It's something I've struggled with in the past and this clip from the show really struck a chord with me. Because I then fully understood the purpose Rogers had for making the show. It wasn't in order to sell toys. It wasn't even in order to make money. Rather, his purpose was to speak to millions kids personally and remind them that they are beautiful just the way they are. He was not only about as nice as a person gets; the care that he put into demonstrating that every kid was special really tells you something about him. I wish more TV shows nowadays were like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I really think kids really need someone like Rogers to remind them that they are valuable. If there simply isn't anyone up for the task, then I hope PBS never stops airing reruns of the show: the message of Fred Rogers is just important now as it ever was before.
I highly recommend all of you readers to watch this documentary. It really shows how much of an impact something as simple as kindness can have on person's life. I sincerely hope this documentary will be an eye-opener for those making children's television. If there was ever a perfect way to make television for kids, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood would be just that.
I like you, just the way you are.