One of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival openers was the latest documentary from filmmaker Morgan Neville in Won't You Be My Neighbor? It is Neville's love story to honor the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. Rogers was the beloved host and creator of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a popular television show that aired from 1968 - 2001, initially made for pre-school children. In an ever changing society Rogers felt compelled to help children deal with difficult issues such as war, assassination, and prejudice, etc. In 1967, Rogers began writing songs for children that he called modulations of life. The songs were easy and happy tunes to sing and remember because too often he noticed a child's world wasn't easy. Rogers would often sit at the piano and slowly play the piano notes from C up to F or F# singing a song of inspiration to encourage children that they can deal with difficult life transitions. In addition, Rogers addressed common childhood fears with songs and skits purposefully to comfort.
On March 20, 2018, Rogers would have turned 90-years-old. His battle with stomach cancer took him at the age of 75, in 2003. Fred McFeely Rogers was known as an American television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister. Did he preach? Absolutely, but without preachy words or saying he was a minister. His message was biblical and simple: "love your neighbor and love yourself because love is the root of everything." Rogers truly practiced what he preached. Children watched and observed his style every day.
Neville's emotional and moving documentary takes the film audience on a journey that peeks behind Roger's neighborhood of make-believe and reveals the importance of his educational teaching style, and the purpose of his trademark cardigan sweater worn daily. Today, the Smithsonian Institution displays one of his trademark sweaters as a "Treasure of American History".
Trained and ordained as a minister, Rogers thought television was a fabulous tool to nurture and educate but was unhappy with the way it did not do this for children in the 1960s. His response was to write and perform shows himself that were made to give children an opportunity to be nurtured. The local station WQED in Pittsburgh took a chance on Rogers and won big-time. The film audience will come to understand through Neville's love-story what was at the heart of Roger's creative ingenuity and why he chose to inspire children to develop their imagination and to grow in compassion.
Neville collaborates with a long cast of family, friends and colleagues to showcase Rogers legacy. All share special sentiments and the impact Rogers left on their lives. For example: Yo-Yo Ma, award-winning, French-born American cellist is asked, "To what do you owe for your success?" He answers without hesitation that it is due to the influence of Mister Fred Rogers. The two were good friends before Rogers passing on February 27, 2003.Others featured are Al Gore, Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin), Bill Clinton, David Newell, François Scarborough Clemmons, Joanne Rogers, Jim Rogers, John Rogers, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jeff Erlanger, Joe Negri.
Repetition was key to his programming and children loved it. The nuts and bolts of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episodes began and ended in the same manner: The opening of the episodes is Mister Rogers seen coming home, singing his theme song "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", and changing into sneakers and putting on a zippered cardigan sweater. Then, Rogers might have an earnest conversation with his television audience, interact with live guests, or take a field trip. There’s always a trip to Rogers' "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" featuring a trolley with its own chiming theme song, a castle, and the kingdom's citizens, including King Friday XIII. The subjects discussed in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe often allowed further development of themes discussed in Mister Rogers' "real" neighborhood. A major theme or lesson of the day turned into a song. Each episode would end with a song entitled "Tomorrow", and the Friday episodes looked forward to the week ahead with an adapted version of "It's Such a Good Feeling". Pretty simple really. As was his continued message: to have confidence in themselves; to be a friend to others, as he was a to them because they are special and have self-worth.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood won four Emmys and Fred Rogers himself was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Daytime Emmys. Journalist Tom Junod writes in his article for Esquire a rather telling account of Rogers' influence:
"Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award—and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence." And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, "I'll watch the time." There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn't kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds—and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly, "May God be with you" to all his vanquished children."
The film release in the United States will be on June 8, 2018. A film not to be missed or the Kleenex forgotten. Neville says, "The film is as much for me as anybody. It's therapy for my soul. Rogers' voice. Rogers' lessons taught. Each aspect feeds my own soul."