WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?: Director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) once said that the first shot of a movie should be among the most interesting thing that a viewer sees throughout its’ entirety. The opening scene of this insightfully informative documentary has the sweater wearing host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” explaining his creative calling and vision circa 1967 of guiding children through the “modulations” of their lives. It’s a marvelously self-revelatory observation from a person who early on understood where his artistic niche was to be and followed through with it over a long and successful career. Oscar winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (See CLOSING CREDITS.) gracefully and patiently accomplishes the feat of accurately demonstrating how the ordained Presbyterian minister turned children’s show host not only saved PBS from being defunded with his eloquent testimony before a skeptical Congressional subcommittee but also how he became a groundbreaking figure in television programming for kids. We’re shown black and white clips from vintage late ‘60s episodes of his show featuring puppets like the feline Daniel who functioned as Rogers’ alter-ego as well as a despotic monarch named King Friday The XIII “who resists change by building walls”. Let that ahead-of-its-time character sink in for a moment. But it was also the program’s willingness to address subject matter like death, divorce, national tragedies and racism, thought to be off limits to children, in a truthful and compassionate fashion that made it a risk-taking landmark of television programming targeted at kids. As you would expect in a documentary about a real-life person, we hear anecdotes from surviving family members and professional associates. But thankfully, the work avoids deification of Fred Rogers by mentioning his discomfort with a gay actor on his show “coming out” as well as his self-doubts plus a failed television venture aimed at adults. But the majority of the movie remains grounded in the essential goodness of a person who was also forward-thinking and progressive enough to turn his “neighborhood” into a microcosm of the world around us that despite its’ problems always felt like a wonderfully safe place. CRITIC’S GRADE: A
CLOSING CREDITS: Prior to directing and producing NEIGHBOR, Morgan Neville was best known for his acclaimed documentary 20 FEET FROM STARDOM (2013). The movie was produced by music industry executive Gil Friesen who always wanted to make a film about back-up singers for major concert and recording artists. The work chronicles the careers of background vocalists like Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Darlene Love who gained some movie fame playing Danny Glover’s wife in the LETHAL WEAPON films. The women are shown in performances with artists like Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. There is additional archival footage from concerts with David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Elton John. The movie won twelve different prizes, including the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.