WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018, doc)

June 8, 2018

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Is it too good to be true? We often ask that question in life, but when it comes to Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, director Morgan Neville’s documentary proves the answer is no … he was good and true. Fred Rogers hosted the children’s TV show on PBS for more than 30 years, starting in 1968. The terrific (and surprisingly emotional) film provides the background of the show, and more importantly, profiles a wonderful man.

Director Neville (BEST OF ENEMIES: BUCKLEY VS VIDAL, 2015) has produced numerous biopics on musicians ranging from Keith Richards to Muddy Waters to Johnny Cash to Brian Wilson. His subject this time out was known for his singing the show’s familiar opening number, and his lyrical legacy was his substantial impact on many generations of children. Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister and, in the early days of television, recognized that violent cartoons were not appropriate programming for the formative childhood years. Even in the early years, he was an outlier with sincerity and wholesomeness in entertainment. He never shied away from tough topics – not even death – whether it was the assassination of Robert Kennedy or a dead fish in the aquarium on set. He spoke directly to children in a voice and language they understood.

There are interviews with fellow cast members, long timer crew members, and relatives, including his wife Joanne. We hear Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons on the show) discuss how Mr. Rogers addressed Clemmons’ homosexuality and race, adding poignancy to the shared televised foot bath. Archival footage takes us back to the early years, and we see Lady Aberlin and Daniel Tiger in both black and white and color segments. We learn that the puppet Daniel most resembled the personality of the host himself … a quiet, patient, compassionate being who cared about others.

We see footage of Fred Rogers testifying in front of a Senate sub-committee to prevent funding for PBS from being eliminated, and we see numerous cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes. Mostly we see the approach of a man who built a legacy on kindness and human decency … a lifetime pursuit of uniting that led to struggles with depression. His obsession with 143 – both his weight and his code for “I love you” provides some insight into his personality, and mostly we hear others speak of his lasting impact.

Rather than comedy and pranks, Mr. Rogers was intent on making kids feel safe and secure in a scary world. Sure he educated – often subtly – but it was his innate ability to comfort that kept kids coming back. There are naysayers who say he is responsible for generations of entitled kids who grew into entitled adults, but the film addresses this by showing Roger’s commencement address where he clearly explains the “special” label. His final show was in 2000 and he died in 2003. His legacy is simple yet powerful. We can each do better. We can each be better. We can each be better neighbors.

watch the trailer:

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20 FEET FROM STARDOM (2013)

July 1, 2013

20 feet1 Greetings again from the darkness. “And the colored girls go do doo doo, do doo …”. The controversial lyrics from Lou Reed’sWalk on the Wild Side” kick off this exceptional documentary about the oft-ignored back-up singers who have played (and continue to play) a huge role in some of the biggest songs of all-time. You may not know their names, but you have undoubtedly sung along with them while driving or taking a shower.

Director Morgan Neville has a credit list filled with music shorts and documentaries. One of my personal favorites of his is “The American Masters” on Muddy Waters. I recalled that while watching this one because Neville does a nice job of connecting the dots from Gospel, Blues and Soul to the roots of Rock and Roll. The main women featured here all admit to being daughters of preachers, and fine-tuning their ability to harmonize during their youth while singing in the church choir.

20 feet5 Most of the interview time and insight comes from Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton. You may not recognize the names or faces, but you will surely recognize the voices. Ms. Love has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and may be best known thanks to her annual appearance on the David Letterman Show at Christmas. Ms. Fischer is the most frequent worker today of the three as she tours with Chris Botti, Sting and The Rolling Stones. However, the heart-stopping climax of the film belongs to Merry Clayton, as we are treated to her isolated vocals from the master on her infamous performance on the single “Gimme Shelter“. Hearing her raw voice blast out “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is both exhilarating and gut-wrenching. To hear her tell the story is mesmerizing. One of my favorite movie moments ever.

20 feet2 While we see and hear the personal stories filled with frustration and regrets, we also see an inherent love of music and the appreciation for their particular gift. We also hear from Tata Vega, Dr. Mabel John (a former Raelette for Ray Charles), and Claudia Lennear. With many similar stories of their quest for solo careers, we get the contemporary version with Judith Hill, a twenty-something working back-up today as she strives for a solo career. The parallels are obvious with her older peers.

Another excellent feature of the film comes in the form of interviews from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Lou Adler, Chris Botti, and Mick Jagger. We also see some studio shots featuring Phil Spector (once the hottest music producer, now incarcerated), and concert footage of Talking Heads, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, and the Concert for 20 feet3Bangladesh. It’s especially fitting to see Luther Vandross as a back-up singer to David Bowie‘s “Young Americans“, and to hear from Sheryl Crow, who worked as Michael Jackson’s back-up/lead female. These are the examples of the back-ups who successfully made the walk.

My only minor quibble with the film is structural, not content. Neville has an over-whelming task of addressing each of the individual stories, while also relating it to the nasty and unfair music business, the Civil Rights movement, the development of Rock and Roll, and the role that “talent” plays in what Springsteen terms the “complicated” walk from back-up to lead singer (the titular 20 feet). The segment focusing on Merry Clayton’s role in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” is especially poignant. Overall this film is fascinating and entertaining, and makes a great companion piece to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) and Muscle Shoals (2013).  Whether or not you are a fan of documentaries, this is a film to be enjoyed by all.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWyUJcA8Zfo