Saturday 28 April 2018

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick *****

Everything You Always Wanted to Know
about Mr. Rogers, but Didn't Think to Ask

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Dir. Morgan Neville

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I always assumed Mr. Rogers was a sicko. My bad. You see, I never actually watched his insanely long-running television program for kids and based all my assumptions of the seemingly square, sweater-adorned, gentle-voiced host upon the very few clips that I'd seen and mostly, the ridiculous number of parodies that filled the airwaves of TV sketch comedy (and notably, Eddie Murphy's legendary rendering that even now reduces me to convulsive fits of laughter).

Not only does Morgan Neville's beautifully crafted biographical documentary portrait dispel all myths anyone could have about Fred Rogers, but presents a figure who towers above most TV personalities as a genuine visionary and to boot, seems like the kind of human being most of us can only dream of being.

On the surface, Won't You Be My Neighbor? might be mistaken for a skilful, highly competent movie about a beloved American pop-culture icon and while it is those things, it's so much more. Blending oodles of footage from the series, a whack of behind-the-scenes archival items, gorgeously rendered contemporary interviews and a cornucopia of rich material spanning over five decades, Neville takes it all to the next level, delivering first-rate filmmaking - artistry of a very high level. Then again, this makes some sense - he is, after all, the director of the incisive documentary about backup singers 20 Feet From Stardom and the truly penetrating, groundbreaking look at the William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal debates Best of Enemies (which managed to transcend its compelling subject matter to deliver a staggering portrait of the historical period it represented and give us a genuine glimpse into the humanity of its extremely polar-opposite subjects).

What we learn from Neville's great film is that Rogers was committed to creating a safe space for all children to be entertained and to learn - to embrace them with love and respect. Even more importantly, Rogers tackled issues of death, divorce, illness, race relations and a plethora of other concerns facing children. His program not only featured an African-American playing a neighbourhood cop, but in a very racist America, Rogers tackled integration by sharing a wading pool with him. Hard to believe that a White Man and a Black Man cooling their bare feet together was considered groundbreaking and even controversial when it first happened, but let's not forget this was in America and that sadly, even now, it would be viewed as heresy by many of our nutjob neighbours south of the 49th parallel (including, no doubt, Donald Trump).

One of the interesting aspects the film reveals is that Rogers was indeed a devout Christian and ordained minister, but never did he publicly proselytize this faith. Yes, he might well have borrowed liberally from the teachings and legacy of Christ, most notably in terms of love, acceptance and forgiveness, but he was also inclusive and accepting of all faiths, colours and cultures.

Structurally, the film draws us in from the get-go, but as it proceeds, it creates a number of emotional layers that sneak up on us. This is genuine filmmaking. We're not only dazzled and moved by the artistry of the work, but I have to admit, that at a certain point, Neville caught me off guard with a couple of lollapalooza sequences that had me in tears. By the end of the film, I felt like I hadn't stopped weeping (both sad and happy globs of salty fluids from my ocular orbs) for what seemed like over half the film's running time.

The elation continued long after I left the cinema. It's with me still. This is what great cinema can and should do. Its effects should transcend the ephemeral and be with us forever. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is just such a film. It brands itself, albeit joyfully, upon everyone.


Won't You Be My Neighbor enjoys its International Premiere at Hot Docs 2018 and opens across North America in June via Focus Features.