By Gregg Shapiro
Photos: Focus Features
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville has a talent for making riveting documentaries about unexpected subjects. He took home an Oscar for 2013’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” about the lives of backing vocalists, and 2015’s critically acclaimed “Best of Enemies” was an intimate portrait of the contentious relationship between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Neville’s Mr. Rogers doc, ”Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (Focus), joins Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” and Jeffrey Schwarz’s “The Fabulous Allan Carr” among the best documentaries of the year so far.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is as revelatory as it is entertaining, as uplifting as it is mournful. Opening with black & white 1967 footage of Fred Rogers, before his groundbreaking educational public broadcasting show went national, the doc makes reference to the way that Rogers became known for combining things that couldn’t be combined.
Rogers believed that children deserved more from TV, that children were being misled by TV. In other words, for someone in television, he hated it. And yet, he earned the love of millions of children. Before his television career, Rogers was going to go into the seminary, was ordained as a minister in 1963. His interest in early childhood education and child psychology, combined with the spiritual dimension and “wide-open Christianity” that Rogers followed resulted in the inclusive “love your neighbor, love yourself” energy of his TV work.
Almost any question you may have about Fred Rogers and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is answered here. The use of puppetry, born of the necessity of improv during a moment of technical difficulties, introduced viewer to Daniel Striped Tiger (described as “pretty much the real Fred”) and King Friday the 13th (representing conflict), who built a wall because he didn’t like or want change (sound familiar?). In fact, the show often drew parallels between the neighborhood and the outside world, dealing with grief (the 1968 Robert Kennedy assassination) and race (Rogers’ neighborly relationship with African-American Officer Clemmons). Even something as seemingly simple as the consistent way that Rogers entered the set the same way each episode, put on one of his zippered cardigans, changed his shoes and ended the show back at his house, singing a song, was thought out completely. The program had lots of “slow space,” but no “wasted space.” It was a place for understanding and safety.
Additional informative details include Rogers’ symbiotic relationship with the puppets, how he was a sickly child who had to learn how to make his own fun, and his fascination with numerology (watch for the explanation of 143). Rogers, a lifelong registered Republican, also testified before Congress for money and got $20 million for the PBS network. Amidst his successes, we see less popular ventures such as his prime-time show for adults “Old Friends…New Friends”, in which he wasn’t able to connect with adults on TV the way he did with kids. We learn about his mixed reaction to the parodies of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” such as “SNL”’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.”
Especially revealing is the segment featuring François Scarborough Clemmons who portrayed Officer Clemmons on the show. Clemmons, who was gay, got married in 1968 because he couldn’t come out working in children’s television. According to Clemmons, Rogers eventually came around in regards to him being gay. Rogers’ widow Joanne says that they had many gay friends. Sadly, when Rogers passed in 2003, Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church cult members picketed his funeral.
In addition to featuring wonderful animation, the doc includes interviews with Rogers’ widow Joanne, sons Jim and John, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, NPR’s Susan Stamberg, producer Margy Whitmer, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” cast members Elizabeth Seamans (Mrs. McFeely), Joe Negri (Handyman Negri), David Newell (Mr. McFeely), François Scarborough Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), and many others.
The answer is yes to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Rating: 4.5 peaches