Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a tearjerker that will leaving you feeling good. If ever there was a film that could take you back in time to a place where you felt like you really belonged and were truly loved, even if it was just by one person who appeared on your television screen every day to tell you that you mattered. Fred McFeely Rogers was that person, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was that place.
As his famous song goes, “It’s such a good feeling, to know you’re alive, it’s such a happy feeling, this feeling inside…” Mister Rogers dedicated his life to making kids feel good about themselves, the world around them, and their place in it. This documentary arrives on what would have been Fred Rodgers’ 90th birthday, and some fifteen years after his passing from cancer.
Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies) set out to make a film about the ideas that Fred Rogers held close to his heart that inevitably made their way onto his multi-generationally successful children’s show. While he uses the standard mix of clips and interviews to frame his portrait of a man beloved by so many, perhaps it was inevitable the result would be such a moving tribute to a man that connected on such an emotional level with kids, many of whom now have children of their own. Sitting in a packed theater, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the credits rolled.
Neville’s documentary gives a brief biography of Fred Rogers, who majored in music composition in college and then postponed going to seminary school after learning about the invention of television; he knew right away where he belonged (though he would, in time, eventually complete his studies). He was able to take what he’d learned and apply those life-affirming ideals to television in ways that some though a bit hokey and maybe a little old-fashioned, even at the time.
It wasn’t long, however, before even the most skeptical executive would come around to the fact they had something truly special; Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would become the second-longest running children’s show of all-time, just behind Sesame Street.
While he was the recognizable star in front of the camera, Rogers also performed all the voices and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers Neighborhood. He toured the country often, meeting children in their own neighborhoods and always making a point to give each child his undivided attention as though they were the only thing that mattered to him that moment.
He felt so strongly about his chosen craft that when politicians threatened to take away funding from public television, Fred Rogers went to Washington D.C. and testified before the Senate Committee for Communications, defending the medium’s crucial role it could play in childhood development.
Despite leading a lifestyle that would exhaust most people, he never let that get in the way of what really mattered to him, according to his wife Joanne Byrd and sons James and John. While making Won’t You Be My Neighbor Neville admitted many asked him whether Mister Rogers really was the way that he seemed on television. After watching the movie and hearing the near universal responses, that answer is a resounding yes! He really was the super nice person we saw onscreen, someone who cared about and loved everyone – and wanted them to know it.
Fred used his show as a tool to connect with children, never afraid to touch on themes like divorce, assassination, superheroes, and other sociopolitical topics that dominated the news cycle during the show’s original airing. He strove to make sure children had a voice they knew was listening, and that it was safe to talk about their feelings and share things they found scary or confusing.
And who could ever forget the Land of Make Believe, where character puppets like King Friday the 13th, Lady Elaine, Princess Sarah and others often talked about their feelings in relation to real-world events?
Whether you grew up watching Fred Rogers take off his jacket, put on his sweater and change his shoes while singing that unforgettable theme song, or only just now learning about him as you sit with your little ones, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the feel-good movie of the summer that both children and adults can appreciate on their own levels while still understanding its greater message. As Mister Rodgers once said: “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships; love, or the lack of it.”