Director: Morgan Neville
Starring: Fred Rogers, François Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell, Tom Junod, Joanne Rogers
Runtime: 93 Minutes
There is so much about the state of the modern world that feels torn up, ruled by fear and seeing the wrong people get away with so much with every passing day. But it’s also a diverse, ever-changing world that can open up toward greater levels of acceptance, kindness and enlightenment.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is such a film that offers this kind of emotional release. A documentary about the life of beloved American icon Fred Rogers; a musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and ordained Presbyterian minister, who was the host and creator of the preschool television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 until 2001.
Although the film is a rundown of much of Rogers’ life as displayed by the structure and development of the show, and archival footage of the Rogers as well as interviews with those who had lived and worked with him, it might be one of the most uplifting documentary films of its kind to emerge in recent years.
As well as charting a life of many accomplishments and the adoring words from just a handful of the millions of people he influenced as children and adults, it follows the guiding philosophy of Fred Rogers life as he lived it and as it was represented on his show.
Almost defiantly against the standards of busier children’s programming of the period and especially now, Rogers’ low budget public television show blended live action, puppetry and documentary footage to deliver life lessons surrounding education, tolerance, kindness and love. While teaching children how to deal with more complex matters that emerged from news such as death, racism, war and other infamous tragedies such as the Kennedy assassination.
His manner of approach was so plain, precise and well worded as he spoke directly to the audience watching it was a perfect delivery method for children setup up close to the television set. It’s fascinating to see the life of an individual who seemed so pure of heart and open to all positive experiences, and almost overwhelming when seeing it play out that someone this good could really exist, while never allowing his own beliefs to infringe on his teaching of others.
There’s a piece of footage at one point that shows the event in which he pleaded before the US Senate to not cut funding to PBS by reading aloud one of his self-composed songs is amazing, but the fact that he actually won is almost difficult to process that it’s a real thing that actually happened.
How it digs into his own personal beliefs is also eloquently handled and never intrusive, with discussions about his own struggles with bullies and weight problems at a young age shedding some light on his use of puppets to communicate. It demystifies the figure to some degree, but it works best when just letting people talk about him.
About the only supposed issue to be had might concern the fact that Rogers’ wasn’t as immediately supportive of African-American performer and lecturer François Clemmons’ position on the show as an openly gay man as many would likely think, but it is something that he just as quickly comes around on, and Clemmons is by far and away the most vocal advocate of Rogers’ as a human being.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a definite tearjerker, but not for the reasons some might expect. You leave it with a euphoric sense of understanding and optimism that could only be matched by watching the show itself, and the unwavering faith that generations put into his purity of soul and well-meaning messages of reinforcement feel validated and then some by director Morgan Neville’s terrific presentation of the man as he was.