I sat down at the table in the movie theater with anticipation to finally see one of the most talked about Documentaries of the year.
Yes, a table. This is at Enzian, one of those Cinema Restaurant hybrids. The theater industry calls them fork and screens.
My girlfriend and I sat at a four seater while a rather big guy with face piercings enters with his much better half and asks if they can sit with us…… what would Mr. Rogers do?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tells the surprisingly rich story of Fred McFeely Rogers and the legacy of his television show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
Because of the reach of the children’s show, which ran from 1968 to 2001, this is a documentary that responds to many generations in different ways.
Some may remember watching the show as a child, which raises the well mannered and melodic speaking Fred Rogers up to father figure status. Some may be parents who were more than happy to pass this wholesome programming down to children of their own. Others, myself being one of them, had a peripheral understanding of his life’s work and what it meant to people.
That being said, this Documentary has something for everyone. If you do not know much about Fred Rogers, his beliefs and cultural significance, well you should…. we all should.
If you are a huge fan of Fred Rogers, I can guarantee you will learn something new about the man.
Morgan Neville, the director of the film, recalls watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood when it began.
Fred captured his attention when Neville was only three years old, he earned it again posthumously in 2016 when the idea for the Documentary came to him.
Morgan Neville has produced and directed many other documentaries prior to this, the majority being about famous musicians.
Enter Yo-Yo Ma. Neville knew the famous Cellist from probing the music scene, he remembered how Yo-Yo Ma appeared on the Mr. Rogers program and had the most amusing stories about him.
This good friend, and many others, confirmed to Neville that there was a story here, one he was meant to tell.
In the Documentary, Yo-Yo Ma tells one of these tales from the set, and it will make you laugh out loud. Other cast members from the show were interviewed for the film, as well as his spouse, Joanne Rogers and one of their sons.
This creates a lush picture of this complex and wonderful human being. Fred Rogers the bullied child, the Presbyterian Minister, the best friend, the Father… the vegetarian.
Fred was there to help children through many traumatic events in our nation, from the Vietnam War to the Kennedy Assassination. Because of this, his show took on a higher calling.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made that message loud and clear. In a fresh and organic way, this Documentary uses the people and situations from Fred Rogers’ life to deal with serious subjects that are just as pressing now as they were back then.
Who would have thought that exploring Mister Rogers’ life would deal with Government funding of education, child psychology and Gay rights…. but it did.
By far the most inspiring moment of this movie for me was hearing Fred Rogers speak at a Senate hearing in 1969 to not only save his show, but the entire Public Broadcasting System.
This was a rising speech, one that reminds you of a time when the spoken word made a difference, before things had to fit into a tweet of 120 characters or less.
Other interesting moments of this film shows Fred Rogers in classrooms and clinics using his trademark puppets to interact directly with children, far away from the bright lights and miniature sets.
Morgan Neville said that he dug through the archives of the Fred Rogers Center to compile all these highlights of this man and his legendary television program.
Within a matter of minutes, it is clear we are in good hands. Morgan Neville himself is a family man and his wife is a children’s librarian, so he had reason to put Fred Rogers’ values and philosophy center stage.
Despite the snow in their shoes, many hearts were warmed when Won’t You Be My Neighbor premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. An effective score and a few flurries of stylized animation support this relevant and gripping Documentary.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a fervent testament of hope, childlike imagination and the power of love which ties all of us. You may not leave the theater with a dry eye, you may wonder what Fred Rogers would think of today’s headlines, but one thing is for sure….. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gives you the feeling that we, in a way, are all children of Mister Rogers and through our cumulative voice, his message should live on.
So back to the unusual stranger who asked to join us at our table in the theater. He sensed my hesitation and chose to sit at the table beside us. I turned to him and said “We can be neighbors.”
Curt Wiser is the Writer/Director of the suspense feature Cam-Girl. As a filmmaker himself, he is happy to put his shoes and jacket on, then give a kind word about other films and share them with the rest of the world.