Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

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The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble


The joy of music.

The joy of music.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man, Jeffrey Kipperman, Edward Arron, Leo Suzuki, Shaw Pong Liu, Camille Zamora, Carlos Castro, Siamak Aghaei, Claude Chaloub, Son de San Diego, Doug Mattocks, Long Yu, Roberto Comesana, Lee Knight, Paco Charlin. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

Leonard Bernstein famously said that music is a shared language between all people. We are all united by it, whether we listen to country and western, J-pop or Chinese opera. Music transcends and defines cultures, bringing us closer to understanding each other when we hear the music of other cultures. Language may be a barrier but great music unites us all.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most celebrated musicians of our time, founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 1998. His goal was to use music as a unifying force to promote cross-cultural understanding. Many of the musicians, some of whom are profiled in the film, live in areas torn by civil war and political upheaval.

Some of their stories truly tug at the heartstrings. Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian, plays a traditional Iranian stringed instrument called a kamancheh, a kind of spiked fiddle. He has been critical of the current regime which has put a stranglehold on what art and music is acceptable to the state and which isn’t. He hasn’t been allowed to perform in his own country and the government refuses to issue a travel visa to his wife. In order to make a living, he must leave Iran and so he spends a great deal of time alone and without the stability of the one who loves him most (and incidentally she’s absolutely gorgeous in the way that Middle Eastern women are).

Kinan Azmeh comes from Syria, whose civil war and repressive despotic regime have sent vast numbers of refugees fleeing its borders, including Azmeh. He plays for refugees and teaches the young people in those camps the history of their culture through traditional songs of their people, songs that are being robbed from them by their displacement.

Not all the stories are like that though. Cristina Pato is from the Galician region of Spain and has become a huge pop star there, playing a traditional bagpipe-like instrument. She comes to understand the criticisms that have been leveled against her and seeks to find a middle ground in terms of traditional music versus personal evolution. There is in fact a common ground, showing respect for what comes before while still expressing your own muse.

Ma, on the other hand, is a figure whose joy and smile are positively infectious. You can’t look at him, grinning with an almost otherworldly delight, and not feel that joy. In fact, you can see that expression on the faces of all the musicians when they play together. It is transcendent; the music takes them to another place and the collaboration between musicians allows them to share it in a way that defies borders, stereotypes and labels. The things we use to divide each other are torn down by the shared experience of beautiful music well-played.

Neville excels at musical documentaries as he showed in the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom which he directed. His strength as a filmmaker is being able to get us into the thoughts and hearts of the musicians he profiles, allowing us a glimpse into their lives and motivations. He personalizes these people and makes them stand out rather than being names on an album cover or images on YouTube. You will identify with these musicians, sympathize with them but most of all, admire them as artists and as people. When Wu Man, a Chinese musician, demurely says “There’s no East and no West; there’s just a globe,” her sincerity is not only charming but right on the money.

There are lots of interviews of the talking head variety and the film takes a little time in getting going. It initially feels more like an academic venture and those who don’t like the more cerebral documentary may have a hard time getting into this one initially. My advice is to stick with it; by the time the end credits roll, you will find  the impact of the film is resoundingly straight to the heart and less to the head, although there is plenty of that. Besides, you don’t want to cheat yourself of the amazing music that these musicians make. I only wish there had been more of it.

REASONS TO GO: Life-affirming in the best possible way. Some of the stories are truly heartbreaking. Ma’s joy is infectious and transformative.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too talking head for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ma in his career has played on more than 90 albums, 18 of them Grammy winners.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Bodyguard (2015)