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Non-Review Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is an affecting and thoughtful exploration of a key figure in American popular consciousness.

Documentary maker Morgan Neville has established himself as a masterful navigator of the history of popular culture, of the depth and shadow often obscured by memory. Neville is perhaps most famous for his fascinating exploration of the back-up singers who provided a foundation for more recognisable stars in 20 Feet from Stardom, and he was also responsible for the documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which probably made a more coherent narrative of The Other Side of the Wind than the film itself.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour? tells the story of children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, a staple of American television since the late sixties. Although the performer passed away more than a decade and a half ago, he casts a long shadow. There has been a renewed interest in his persona. Jim Carrey is playing a fictionalised version of the present in Kidding, while Tom Hanks will play a more official version of the man in a biography directed by Marielle Heller. (The film was originally titled Are You My Friend?, but is reportedly in the process of being retitled.

It is interesting to wonder why Fred Rogers is of such great interest at this precise moment, something that Won’t You Be My Neighbour? skirts around without tackling directly. Instead, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is a sweet and affecting documentary that maybe brushes a little too lightly against its subject in places, but speaks most convincingly to what he represented and why he is so beloved.

There are a few small and scattered suggestions of Fred Rogers a fully-formed human being in Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, mostly offered in teaser insights and small asides before the narrative gets back to the process of mythmaking. There is something very charming in the stories that Rogers’ children tell about the dinner table, when Rogers was so conscious of his persona that he would use different voices when articulating ideas and concepts that ran counter to that. At another point, one of his children reflects that it was “a little tough for me to have… kind of… the Second Christ as my father.”

Won’t Be My Neighbour? fleetingly touches on certain avenues of exploration, like the relationship between the children’s entertainer and François Clemmons. Clemmons was the African American actor who portrayed the local police officer in the neighbourhood, and Roger’s interactions with him showcased the performer’s appeal and also his limitations. Rogers vocally and dramatically opposed segregation, making a point to emphasise the importance of tolerance and inclusivity in a way that was important to contemporary audiences. However, his attitudes to Clemmons’ homosexuality are only fleetingly mentioned.

This is a valid choice, of course. There is an argument that Rogers should be treated more as an institution than as a human being, but it also cuts against the stronger moments in the documentary, when Neville and his interviewees discuss the humanity beneath the icon; Rogers’ doubt and insecurity, his commitment and his stubbornness, his awkwardness and his sincerity. These moments of meditation are compelling, as if Neville is peeling back the lawyers on a cultural landmark. Unfortunately, there is a small sense of hesitation that runs through these moments, boundaries on how intimate and how personal it can get.

Still, even with those boundaries in place, there is a lot of interesting material here. Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood was never as popular or as successful outside the United States as it had been within the country. Unlike Sesame Street, it never traveled to Europe. As such, there is something deeply fascinating in the cultural excavation taking place in Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, with Neville skillfully crafting a narrative that both introduces the concept and context of the series while also explaining its success and its importance.

Indeed, there is something slightly cheeky simmering in the background of Won’t You Be My Neighbour? Neville never tackles the question head on, but there is a recurring fascination with why there should be so much fascination with Fred Rogers at this cultural moment. One of the earlier excerpts from the series suggests a contemporary relevance, with the neighbourhood’s local “benevolent despot” embracing authoritarianism. “King Friday was angry that people were changing things. So his reaction as a figure of author was to build a wall.”

This is one of those “if it were written today, it would seem on the nose” moments, but it just happens to be a very fortuitous piece of writing from Fred Rogers and his creative team. The clip doesn’t come from the nineties or the eighties, or even the seventies. That sequence, which hints at contemporary relevance in an almost absurdly on-the-nose manner, was produced incredibly early in the run. As one talking head helpfully contextualises the plot thread, “That was the first week. That’s how it got started.”

As it develops, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? offers a slightly less spurious argument for contemporary reengagement with Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. The documentary explores the entire run of the series, but spends a lot of time focusing on the early episodes in the late sixties. These were turbulent times, and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood was most striking for its willingness to confront that turbulence head-on. At one point, Daniel the Tiger asks his co-host to explain the meaning of the word “assassination”, in the context of the then-recent deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Much has been written about the chaos of the modern world and the uncertainty facing a generation of young people who had long believed that things were getting better. It is no coincidence that this uncertainty is often connected back to the turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies; the shock of 2016 was likened to that of 1968, while the spectre of the Nixon White House looms of the Trump Administration. This perhaps explains the shift towards the late sixties and early seventies in contemporary popular culture, even in prestige television.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour? makes a point to stress that Fred Rogers explained the uncertainty and randomness of the late sixties to the young children watching at home. These were children who would have passively absorbed anxiety from their parents and from other media, without ever really talking about it or having it explained to them. Rogers treated his audience with respect, talking candidly about concepts like segregation or warfare or assassination. In explaining these dangers, he codified them and made the world more rational. He also assured his audience that they would be safe even in this chaos.

Particular attention is paid to the importance of stability and routine in the world of Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood, with a wonderful montage illustrating how carefully and how meticulously the presenter would go through the familiar ritual of taking off his shoes and putting on his cardigan to make himself at home, and also exploring how comfortable he was in absolute silence. All of this suggests the stability that Rogers offered young children, directly contrasted with the cacophony unfolding in the larger world.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour? never makes these parallels explicit, perhaps wary of dating itself or becoming too embroiled in contemporary politics. (After all, Rogers identified himself as a life-long Republican, although one wonders what he would make of the modern party.) A passage towards the end of the film even touches on the challenges facing a figure like Rogers in the modern climate, the hills that they would have to climb and the battles that they would have to fight. His wife observes of the prospect of Rogers wrestling with the current moment, “He’s not a person who would have given up, but this is daunting.”

Even if it doesn’t offer easy answers to the current situation, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? at least hints at the lasting (and even resurgent) popularity of its subject. Won’t You Be My Neighbour? hints that the United States never quite recovered from the traumas and tragedies of the late sixties, that the wounds left their scars on the psyche. However, it also applauds its subject for trying to heal those divisions. Won’t You Be My Neighbour? focuses on the various battles that Rogers fought, whether he won or whether he lost, and consistently admires him for trying.

Perhaps this is why that figure speaks so strongly to the current chaotic moment.

4 Responses

  1. I’m basically part of the documentary’s core audience — grew up watching Mr. Rogers on TV in the ’70s and early ’80s and shed literal tears when he died. I saw the documentary in a theater in Brooklyn over the summer. Theater was sold old. During the closing credits, which featured Mr. Rogers singing a song, not a single person got up to leave until the song was over. That was a unique experience.

    So, yes, the movie works intellectually, but, emotionally, I’ve never seen a documentary that so captivated its core audience.

    (with the possible exception of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, which came out at around the same time).

    • It really is an emotionally powerful piece of cinema. I have been repeatedly described as “heartless” and the duet sequence had me on the verge of tears.

  2. Perhaps a bit off-topic from the movie itself, but this is actually the only movie/TV review website that I follow, aside from occasional reviews in the NYT. I came for the Star Trek reviews and stayed because you usually have some interesting insights on the behind-the-scenes contributions of different production team members for a series/movie, as well as a good sense of how the media is responding to the current “moment”, which I appreciate. I think this review is a good example of that.

    I think that online content has skewed heavily towards fairly shallow and/or vicious reviews/criticism of media, especially when it comes to video content on youtube, etc. So I tend to avoid most analysis online these days, even though youtube really, really thinks I should watch ‘Why ‘the Last Jedi’ is a complete cinematic failure.’ I like that you give every media an honest shake rather than dismissing it out of hand. So I appreciate reviews like this for a movie that I probably wouldn’t have watched without the review.

    Anyhow, that’s my 2 cents. Keep up the good work!

    PS – I used to live in Pittsburgh just a block from Rogers’ old house and the TV/radio station. There was a great local story about how his car was stolen one time, and the morning radio announcer told people the next day and described the car that had been stolen, and then the following week the car was returned with an apology note for Mr. Rogers inside.

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