“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. A beautiful day for a neighbor. Could you be mine?
Would you be mine?”
Anyone who was a kid from the 1960’s to the 1990’s and beyond recognizes Mr. Rogers and his Neighbor Song. The man defined children’s programming for television, and he did so from a small studio tucked away in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania for almost 40 years. Now Fred Rogers is the subject of a documentary by Morgan Neville, who has previously tackled such musical personalities as Keith Richards, Charlie Pride, and Johnny Cash. But Fred Rogers is such a different kind of subject that this would appear an almost impossible kind of documentary to pull off, or at least make interesting. I attended more out of curiosity and fond memories of the man and his show. I guess I was expecting something to speak more to the memories of my inner child than my outward adult. The surprise here is that Won’t You Be My Neighbor successfully makes contact with both, and I found this impossible documentary to be one of the most compelling films I’ve seen in a while.
There aren’t many people living in this country who don’t at least know who Fred Rogers was. It would be a complete waste of my space and your time to tell you very much about the man in these lines. Truthfully, you’ll make the kinds of discoveries into the nature of who he was by spending a short 90 minutes watching the documentary. It will be time well spent no matter how little or much you think you know about him. There will be something to learn for everyone here. Instead I want to take some time to tell you about the kind of journey you’ll make with this film. What kind of impressions will the film make on you? I’ll tell you the kinds of impressions it left on me.
The first thing that attracted my attention was that Fred Rogers should be a rather boring subject. It becomes clear early in the film that there wasn’t much difference between the man you saw on television and the man his friends and family knew on a daily basis. He also had an almost hypnotic voice that should actually put you to sleep, but instead it commands your attention without any need for gruffness or vulgarity. He’s the kind of person you don’t expect to exist in real life, but he did, and this film does an awesome job of bringing that private person to life. But again, on the surface there’s nothing very exciting about the man. It didn’t take long for me to understand that that’s exactly what made him so remarkable. It’s hard to find a celebrity of any kind who doesn’t rely on some trademark move, phrase or action. And while Fred Rogers appears to have plenty of those attributes, they rise above the nature of pure shtick or invention. I’ve met quite a few stars in my life. Through this job and running security for conventions I have gotten to see many behind the curtain of a public stage. Most have been pleasant enough experiences, but it’s rare to find someone who is exactly the same when they are “on”, as they say. Of course, some celebrities are just always “on”, but the performance is never hard to spot up close. This film will take you extremely up close to Fred Rogers, and what you see on the show is as real as it gets. Dennis DeYoung once said in a song that sincerity is they key, and that once you learn to fake it, you’re going to be home free. There’s nothing fake about Fred Rogers, and the biggest take you’ll get from this film is just how unique and special that was. If he was faking it, it’s the greatest con in entertainment history.
The film provides a nice biography of the man. He was an ordained minister who found himself in the world of children’s television and hated what he saw. He decided to do something entirely different, and it ended up placing him in the living rooms of millions of children. The film shows us the evolution of the show. Rogers wasn’t afraid to touch on serious subjects that many thought were too frightening or inappropriate for children. But Rogers refused to talk down to the children who watched the show. The very first week of the show in the 1960’s he was tackling the Vietnam conflict, with war reaching the gates of his magical kingdom. Throughout the years he would tackle such sensitive subjects for children as death and the divorce of their parents. He was there when schoolchildren were faced with the sudden and explosive death of a teacher when the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed. Somehow when Fred Rogers was talking to us either as himself or through his iconic characters, these real-life horrors were not quite so scary, and he taught children how to cope with them.
He took on his own crusades in an effort to better protect children. One such crusade I wasn’t even aware of. When Richard Donner decided to show us that a man can fly with his iconic version of Superman in 1978, the film came with unintended consequences. Children were so convinced that they might be able to fly that they would climb on building roofs with a makeshift cape and jump. Serious injuries and death were being reported around the country that Rogers not only addressed it on the show but recorded PSA commercials to warn kids of the dangers. His last public efforts were to try to reassure kids in the aftermath of 9/11. It was certainly a time when adults and children both could have really used Mr. Rogers to tell us that things would be OK. And even though he was elder and somewhat ill, he was there one last time.
He was a fierce opponent of violence in cartoons, but instead of being preachy as his minister roots might have trained him, he led by example. The film doesn’t shy away from the negative reactions to his work. There were campaigns against his idea of telling kids that they are all special. Some thought it led to a society of entitlement. That just isn’t the case. Being told you’re special doesn’t make you feel entitled. Rogers always taught responsibility and that actions have consequences. What he did not teach was that getting in trouble wasn’t your fault or to consider yourself a perpetual victim. Those are the lessons that lead to entitlement. But the accusations existed. Of course, his gentle nature and voice led to accusations that he was gay. There’s a clip where Tom Snyder tries to broach the subject in an interview. The film doesn’t shy away from those subjects and embraces the fact that while Rogers himself wasn’t gay, a character on the show was. The film doesn’t whitewash the fact that Rogers insisted that such information could not be made public. The film addresses many of the parodies that showed up over the years including Eddie Murphy’s famous ongoing Saturday Night Live segment called Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood. He appeared good-natured and claimed that he thought some of them came from a place of love. You see, that’s where he came from, and it appears that’s what he expected from everyone else. I’m sure mankind was often quite a disappointment to him.
But he was often buoyed by some of the people he knew. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma became a personal friend and played for him in his final hours over a telephone line. A young child facing a risky operation and a challenge to live was an inspiration to him. There’s a touching scene where he talked to the child before his surgery, and years later the surviving teen surprised him on a stage during a tribute to Rogers.
The film includes plenty of interviews with other cast members and crew people from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Perhaps the most touching words come from his widow Joanne. Through her we do get a glimpse of the things that made him more somber. There was apparently a constant concern that he wasn’t good enough or that he had failed in some way. The fact is that Fred Rogers was human with all of the flaws and insecurities that we all have. I’d say the most important interviews are those from Fred Rogers himself. The film allows us to see those weaker moments when he was angry or disappointed. But he might have had a bigger impact on generations of people than any other single person living during his time. It’s a powerful legacy that is told with a tsunami of emotion in this documentary. It’s been years since Fred Rogers changed into his sweater and sneakers to take us on a magical journey into our imagination. This documentary serves as a wonderful coda to those memories. Rogers has been gone for 15 years, but the influence thrives today. So “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Since we’re together, might as well say, would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”