Plot: Fred Rogers saw immense potential in television, but he disliked how programs designed for children were handled. He knew that that had to be better ways to reach young minds than slapstick humor and pies in the face, so he took it upon himself to make that happen. After a brief run on a simple children’s program, he went back to his religious studies, but it wouldn’t be long before he returned to television and created one of the most iconic shows ever. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood would impact generations of children and prove that children would respond to respectful, educational program if the material was in the right hands. In Would You Be My Neighbor?, we are taken inside the show’s creation and evolution, as well as Rogers’ personal life and how he was drawn to help children.
Entertainment Value: Mr. Rogers is one of those special people that has transcended the realm of television hosting into pop culture at large, doing so in a simple, effective style that no one else could match. He would reach generation after generation of viewers, connecting with young audiences on a deeper level than anyone else could. As this documentary tells us, Mr. Rogers’ show was the opposite of what was seen as “good television,” with cheap sets and an unlikely host, but it worked and it worked because of Rogers’ kind, genuine persona and his desire to help children. This movie guides us through Rogers’ show from start to finish, with all kinds of details about his approach and his views on television. But we also see more of his personal life, see him at various children’s events, and hear from his family, crew members, and close friends. The piece is a positive one and you can tell the filmmakers have a great admiration for Rogers, but it never feels like hero worship or a puff piece. There is real substance here and real emotion, delivering an insightful, powerful experience.
The documentary provides a wealth of sources, from pertinent clips from the show, behind the scenes footage, home movies, live events, and interviews of all kinds, both archival and newly created. This allows us to see many perspectives on Rogers and his show, while the archival interviews give Fred a voice in the program and let us hear directly from the man himself. A number of participants are talked with, but the movie is smart to limit the subjects to those who were close to Fred, either personally or through his work. So these are people with real insight on the man and his lifestyle, rather than fans or random celebrities heaping praise. This piece also doesn’t shy away from tougher topics, from criticism of his “everyone is special” outlook to how he handled a gay cast member to his religious/political views, as well as some of the more colorful rumors about Fred’s life. I found this to be a warm, sincere look into the life and work of a truly one of a kind man, so without question, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? earns our highest recommendation.