Fred Rogers, whether you watched his iconic children’s TV programs as a kid or just knew the song lyrics, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” was a household name in America for decades. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville pays due homage to the man who saw kids as the world’s most important resource in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
I was too old in 1968, at the advanced age of 17 years, to watch “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” except maybe with my toddler nephew, Scott. I still knew, like most of us, about Fred Rogers, even if only to goof on the kind gentleness of the man. But, I never disrespected him or his message about and for kids and their (our) future.
I do remember children’s TV programs prior to the advent of Mister Rogers on PBS. “Captain Kangaroo,” Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and “Miss Jean’s Romper Room” come to mind, as well as the Hanna-Barbera and Looney Toons cartoon shows. But that was during my young days as a kid and before “MRN,” “The Electric Company” and “Sesame Street.” Still, I knew well Mister Rogers, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, .
That said, Neville’s documentary is a particularly nostalgic journey, for me, to a time of change in America, good and bad. The film chronicles the life of Fred Rogers, from his early days as a divinity student and his first work with children’s TV to his long reign as the creator and host of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, among many other awards and honors.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” tells Rogers’s story through his eyes and through those around him – colleagues, family and friends who, deservedly, sing his praises and talk of their experiences with him. But it is also a lesson in American history and how Fred Rogers explained the scary things to his very young audience at their level. He talked to kids in a language they understand and did it for generations. It feels like coming home. I give it a B.
Whether you think of him as that corny square guy who wore a cardigan or as an essential part of your or your childrens' upbringing, it is difficult to be unmoved by Fred Rogers' commitment to instilling goodness in and providing a safe place for children in director Morgan Neville's ("Twenty Feet from Stardom") "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
I will admit to being one of the former, Mr. Rogers arriving on the scene a little too late for me. I've spent more time in the company of Eddie Murphy's SNL parody character Mr. Robinson. That said, I am now a fan. It is amazing how timely, given our current national coarsening, Mr. Rogers' messages are. Take, for example, a clip from his show broadcast during its first week in February, 1968. King Friday decides to *build a wall* around his domain, a resistance to change so he can 'stay on top.'
Neville states that he didn't want to just make a biographical documentary about Rogers, but something which encompassed his ideas. He has succeeded. He opens with footage of Rogers sitting at a piano, using it as an analogy to explain how he hopes to help children 'through the difficult modulations of life.' Rogers believed children's emotions were every bit as complex as adults' and was fearless in addressing tough ideas like death and divorce. When RFK was assassinated, Rogers was there to help the youngest Americans face their grief. When he heard about blacks being denied access to a public swimming pool, he had Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons) join him cooling his feet in a wading pool.
Rogers was an ordained minister who found himself drawn to the new medium of television, believing he could create a community across the U.S. He started with The Children's Corner at his local Pittsburgh station WQED with Josey Carey hosting. They relied on free films. One day, one broke. Thinking quickly, Rogers poked his Daniel the Tiger puppet (one of ten he voiced) through the paper background, solving a live TV issue and opening a new door. His producer notes that he did the exact opposite of what makes good television and somehow it all worked.
There are interviews sprinkled throughout with Fred's wife Joanne, one of his sons, crew, cast members and guests (like Yo-Yo Ma, the subject of Neville's "The Music of Strangers" who planted the idea for this work when he told Neville it was Rogers who taught him how to be a celebrity). Clemmons talks about their deep friendship, one which navigated his coming out before Rogers was able to deal with the issue. David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely, loved to take joke shots mooning other peoples' cameras - when he did it to Rogers, not a word was said until he got a blown up poster of the shot for Christmas. We learn that Rogers loved to swim and was proud of the fact that he maintained a weight of 148 pounds year after year (as a child, he was bullied for being overweight). When Nixon threatened to cut PBS funding, a nervous Rogers appeared before Senator John Pastore's committee meeting and saved his funding by singing a song!
Of course, we see Rogers connecting with a wide variety of children, making each and every one his sole focus. Neville includes Jeff Erlanger in his wheelchair singing along with Fred (stay for the closing credits and you will see them reunited when Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame). The film ends on a sad note, Rogers' funeral protested by the Westboro Baptist Church, a child carrying a hate-filled sign. Just what would Fred Rogers have thought of this world he left behind? I hope it wouldn't have defeated him.
Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.