Fred Rogers was the famed host of the classic children's television show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood. A trendsetter for future children's television programing, Rogers was also an advocate and social crusader for children, and lived a very endearing life. The documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, made by filmmaker, Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), is a wonderful tribute to Fred Rogers’ life and legacy. A great individual, who had an incredibly positive outlook on life, this engrossing tale doesn’t merely paint Rogers as a saint, but rather as a human being with his own interests and doubts.
The documentary introduces us to the well known child psychologists whom Rogers knew and was greatly influenced by. We see Rogers struggle in his early years and his eventual disgust over the lack of good solid children’s television programming (which I was surprised to learn) due to his discomfort with television’s reliance on merchandising advertisements. In fact, Rogers saw television as a meaningful way to teach communication skills to children. As a child, Rogers was sickly and bullied for being fat, and in the film, this is portrayed in animated segments using his most famous and favorite puppet character, Daniel Striped Tiger, which gives us the sense that Rogers was just like his audience, a kid at heart.
When Fred Rogers started Mister Rogers Neighborhood, he was willing to push the boundaries of social issues. For example, during his first week of production, he focused on the Vietnam War, something not typically discussed with children. He often introduced sensitive topics, such as, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and the Challenger explosion and the death of seven astronauts including teacher, Christa McAuliffe. He often used his puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, to help teach children how to understand and deal with their emotions, like being sad and scared, in The Land of Make Believe. Rogers’ wit and skills are clearly evident as the lead actor, a voice actor, a classically trained pianist, and composer, who wrote and sang many of the songs performed in his shows. He was far ahead of his time and touched all ages with his emotional availability. He made everyone feel special “just the way you are”, and sought to help others realize their own innate goodness and value. A person we can all look up to.
People interviewed in the film include his wife, his two sons, producer Margaret Whitmer, and many other colleagues and friends, including Yo-Yo-Ma, whose son is one of the film's producers. Honestly, I would have liked to have seen and heard from more people who worked on the show, but, unfortunately, many people are no longer with us. Rogers’ son confesses to having had difficulties due to his father’s fame compares him to the second Christ. We get to see some great family footage at their Nantucket beach house, and although not mentioned in this documentary, Rogers also had ties to the Upper Valley, having attended Dartmouth for his first two years of college.
As a documentary and portrait on a great human-being, it succeeds on so many levels. There are so many emotional moments that touched me in this film, in a way that a film hasn’t in years. Warning: I would advise you to bring tissues. The movie made me simultaneously happy and sad. In these bleak cynical times, we really do need a person like Fred Rogers to remind us of all of the good in us, and how special we are, in our own unique ways. He lived a full life, and was truly one of a kind.
Playing at The Nugget Theater, Monday through Thursday at 1:50, 4:20, and 6:50 PM, Friday and Saturday at 2:00, 5:20, and 8:15 PM, and Sunday at 2:00 and 6:00 PM.