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Won't You Be My Neighbor? Movie Review

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018) movie poster Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Theatrical Release: June 8, 2018 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Morgan Neville / Producers: Caryn Capotosto, Nicholas Ma / Tagline: A little kindness makes a world of difference.

Notable Interview Subjects: François Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell, James Rogers, John Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Nick Tallo


It's been fifteen years since Fred Rogers passed away and almost twenty since his signature television series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" wrapped production, but the world isn't about to forget either of them.
A biopic is due in theaters next year with Tom Hanks playing the mild-mannered, cardigan-wearing host. Meanwhile, the genuine article can now be found in Morgan Neville's fine documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Mr. Rogers took to public television in 1968, one year before "Sesame Street", and stuck around for more than thirty years before retiring and living on in reruns. Few alive today grew up in a pre-Mr. Rogers world and, whether tuning in regularly or only once in a while, the rest of us knew him as one of the most consistently comforting figures of our childhood.

Interviews and archive footage are the principal ingredients of many documentaries and Neville, who won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for 2013's back-up singer celebration 20 Feet from Stardom, succeeds gloriously on both fronts. As far as interviews go, Neville tracks down just about everyone you'd like to hear from except Betty Aberlin, who played Lady Aberlin.

Rogers' widow, their two sons, the aunt who reportedly inspired the hideous puppet Lady Elaine Fairchild, recurring cast members like David Newell (Mr. McFeely), Joe Negri (Handyman Negri), and François Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), friend and one-time guest Yo-Yo Ma, and floor manager Nick Tallo all have stories and perspective to give to the warm, kind, affirmation-dispensing host, who delayed entering a seminary to dip his feet into television.

As they did before, Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers) and Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons) cool their feet off together in a kiddie pool in a "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" clip seen in the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

Neighbor doesn't shatter your childhood perception of Rogers as a gentleman who oozed decency. In fact, all of the reflections here reinforce the notion that what you saw was what you got when it came to Mr. Rogers, as unlikely as that seems based on what we know about human beings and celebrities. The documentary supplies copious clips, not only from his long-running PBS staple but also from his testimony before a Nixon-era Senate subcommittee eager to cut funding to public television, interviews with other hosts, and a short-lived series for adults you almost certainly never heard of.
In none of the clips do we see Rogers raise his voice or break character, because it clearly wasn't a character or an act. Even when a crew member surprises him during the taping of his final episode, forcing him to restart his famous opening song and costume change, Rogers has a chuckle and is happy to shoot another take.

Neville's film addresses some rumors that have cropped up over the years. Yes, he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. No, he was not a Navy SEAL. It even addresses homosexuality, a topic you might not expect, in terms of Rogers' acceptance and platonic love of the gay Clemmons, while still understandably insisting that he hide his homosexuality from the public per the times. That position might not sit well with viewers accustomed to our more tolerant times, but it may explain why hateful protestors are shown picketing outside Rogers' 2003 church funeral.

Neville's thorough and well-crafted film does everything you want a Mr. Rogers documentary to do. It enlightens us with fun facts, such as the significance of Rogers' long-maintained weight of 143 pounds and the reveal that Daniel Tiger was the puppet who most reflected Rogers' real personality. It entertains us with excerpts of the series (including his classic late-1990s meeting with Koko the gorilla) and even Eddie Murphy's "Saturday Night Live" and Martin Short's "SCTV" parodies of it. It touches us with Rogers' enduring lessons and relevant candor (an early episode tackled the concept of "assassination" to a world reeling from Robert F. Kennedy's death). And it puts it all into context, both in contrasting Rogers' slow, intimate style with violent commercial children's programming and contrasting Rogers' encouragement with the scary world in which all children grow up.

Related Reviews:
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Directed by Morgan Neville: Twenty Feet from Stardom
Henson's Place: The Man Behind the MuppetsSesame Street: 20 Years...and Still Counting!
Mrs. DoubtfireBear in the Big Blue House: Visiting the Doctor with Bear

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Reviewed June 8, 2018.

Text copyright 2018 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2018 Focus Features, Tremolo, Impact Partners, and Independent Lens/PBS.
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