Moving documentary about everyone's favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers
Posted June 4, 2018 7:10 p.m. EDT
Appalled at much of mainstream children's TV of the 1950s and '60s -- crassly commercial, loud, slapsticky, sometimes violent and generally overbearing -- Fred Rogers, a gentle soul and an ordained minister, set out to create a better alternative. He surely succeeded.
``Won't You Be My Neighbor?'' is an enlightening and deeply touching documentary about the man behind ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' which grew out of a 15-minute program of puppetry and music first broadcast in Canada in the early 1960s. Rogers moved the show to Pittburgh, and national broadcasts began in 1968. The program found a home on PBS, lasting through 895 episodes to end in 2001.
While the show depended strongly on Rogers' personality as he addressed his pre-school target audience with a friendly voice and kindly manner, the film also asserts that one of the program's tributaries was university research into early childhood education, which was gaining attention through the works of Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton.
Rogers loved music, a constant element in the show, from the famous opening song (which provides the movie's title) to ditties sung in the puppet kingdom called the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, to guest appearances by the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma. Ma appears in the film and gives a highly moving tribute to Rogers.
But what made ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' so exceptional was that it reflected its host's abiding concern with the emotional lives of his young viewers. It was important to Rogers that children have a sense of their uniqueness, and he regularly offered them reassurances when they faced disturbing feelings -- fear, anger, grief. We are shown footage from an episode in which the program directly addressed such troubling emotions after Robert Kennedy's assassination.
Besides excerpts from the show, featuring such regulars as Betty Aberlin and Joe Negri, director Morgan Neville also employs vintage black-and-white footage of Rogers reminiscing while sitting in front of a piano, plus interviews with colleagues from the show and family members, most touchingly his wife, Joanne.
One of the best of the movie's many good sequences is footage of Rogers testifying before a U.S. Senate committee that was threatening to cut funding for public television. Rogers' plainspoken and heartfelt words appear to soften the committee chairman, who comes across as a crusty sort. Also affecting are interviews with Francois Clemmons, an actor blessed with a terrific singing voice who played the recurring role of a police officer.
He remembers Rogers with great fondness, even though Rogers was unwilling to allow Clemmons, who is gay, to make any reference to his sexual orientation on the program. On the other hand, at a time when racial integration was a still controversial to some, Rogers included in the show a scene in which he shares a foot bath with the African American Clemons on a hot day. A solid lesson, gently delivered.
As an antidote to the frenetic nature of a lot of children's TV of the day, Rogers preferred a measured pace on his show, and even made judicious use of silence. These are just two of the numerous gifts given by this extraordinary man to the children lucky enough to have watched ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.''
Walter Addiego is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
4 stars out of 4 stars Documentary. With Fred Rogers. Directed by Morgan Neville. PG-13. 94 minutes.