I remember once, when I was a boy, sitting with my Grandma as she flipped the dial and channel surfed her way into Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was a warm afternoon in her Florida condo and she had a tendency to suck me into watching whatever program she settled on (in fact, this was how I wound up seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for the first time). Once Grandma hit the local PBS station and that familiar theme music began jingling away, we sat on her couch, entranced. A subtitle appeared on the screen, announcing that today’s episode was about “Grandparents.” My Grandma turned to me and announced, “Oh, we’re watching this one!” She had a point. When Mr. Rogers has something to teach you, there’s no point in resisting.
I found revisiting the life and career of Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s simply marvelous documentary, to be equally irresistible. Looking at Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood today, the long-running PBS children’s program created and hosted by Rogers is truly strange. The show would begin as Rogers, with his golly-shucks-oh-gee manner, introduced every episode inside his home while singing and changing sweaters. It quickly became much weirder, as a trolley would take the viewers into the Land of Make Believe, where we’d meet puppet characters like King Friday, X the Owl and the fiendish Lady Elaine (who, amusingly, is revealed to be based on Roger’s mother-in-law). As noted in Neville’s film, the episodes were awfully slow. Longtime fans like myself can’t deny how goofy it all felt. Like Rogers himself, you’d question how sugary it all seemed, until the deeper meaning and inherent compassion would etch its way into your heart.
The footage speaks for itself: note how, during its initial run, there’s an episode where King Friday wanted to “build a wall” to keep everyone out(!) and later regrets his decision. There were also political allegories, direct conversations about difficult topics and a remarkable, defiant reference to racial bigotry… and that was just the first season. Neville’s documentary isn’t just a collection of golden clips, but a revealing, tremendously touching declaration of Rogers’ philosophy. Rogers wanted children to feel special, know they were loved, and feel empowered to pursue their dreams.
In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, no stone is left unturned. The bizarre and surprisingly durable urban legend that Mr. Rogers is a Navy Seal covered in tattoos (hence, the long sweaters) is addressed. So is whether his onscreen persona was an act or the real deal. We see a clip of the hilarious “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” SNL sketch, then hear Rogers’ reaction and his recollection of a priceless Eddie Murphy encounter.
Some documentaries don’t need to be seen on the big screen but this one does. There is an epic scope within the 90 brisk minutes, full of unseen home footage and new interviews. Maurice Sendak-like animated segments, depicting Rogers’ child-like psyche, provide strong dramatic bookends. There are telling, surprisingly rowdy recollections from Rogers’ production staff. Eagle eyes will note that, in the archival, mid-1970’s footage, you can spot a very young Michael Keaton.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows a man who was a true original: both genuinely square but somehow defiantly earnest, even progressive. A sequence in which we learn that Rogers once objected to the gay lifestyle of a cast member (he feared it could lead to PBS shutting down the show) but later changed his outlook, is especially affecting.
There are a lot of moments in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that made me cry, and not merely because of nostalgia. Getting an unguarded glimpse of this true original, who stood for decency and love in everything he did, is refreshing. Rogers’ life story and this documentary provide a plea for kindness. That may sound corny, but Rogers knew long before his passing that the world around him would only become a scarier place. Here’s a man who made a career out of demonstrating how good we can be, for ourselves and one another. It’s impossible not to be moved by this film.
Rated PG-13 / 94 Min.
Photo courtesy IMDB