Wednesday 17 October 2018

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOUR - London Film Festival review

Part of this year's London Film Festival is Morgan Neville's touching documentary about one of American television's nicest personalities, Fred Rogers.

If you grew up in the UK, Mister Rogers is best known as one of those ubiquitous American pop culture references made in films, that you never quite understood. Thankfully this film provides the context of who Fred Rogers was, and why he had such an indelible impression on the youth of America for so many years. A presbyterian minister who saw the need for informative children's television, his show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ran from 1968 until his retirement in 2001, his kind and gentle persona teaching young children how to feel about their emotions, covering a wide range of topics like divorce, bullying and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Using his tiger puppet Daniel Stripe and a host of characters for Rogers to interact with in the three walled set of his house, this was the kind of programming that seems quaint through modern eyes, like part of a bygone era before children were easily distracted by video games and brightly coloured cartoons. I'm aware that I'm sounding like a grandad by saying that, but this documentary makes clear that without Rogers there may have never been progressive, educational children's programming like Sesame Street. The filmmakers are also aware of how easily pastiched Rogers was, featuring clips of Eddie Murphy's affectionate homage on SNL, Mister Robinson's Neighborhood.

This is an extremely endearing documentary that, even if you weren't aware of Fred Rogers before viewing, will have you completely won over by the end. Even if you go in with a sense that there must be some dirt on such a kind and gentle soul, Neville digs as deep as he can to make sure the character of Rogers can't be called into question. The most controversial opinion Rogers had was asking long time cast member (Officer) Francois Clemmons in 1968 to remain in the closet for fear of the scandal it may cause, but as Clemmons attests as one of the key interview subjects here, he never considered Rogers to be an intolerant man and Rogers made right on the times he went wrong.

It's easy to be cynical about Fred Rogers as a subject with his kindly demeanour and trademark comfortable loafers and sweater, and (Academy Award nominee for 20 Feet from Stardom) Morgan Neville's doc is designed to be an uplifting experience, but I defy anyone with a heart not to find the footage of Rogers singing "It's You I Like" to disabled child Jeff Erlanger one of the most touching things you've ever seen. A kindly uncle to all of America's children, it's easy to see why Rogers, who passed away in 2003, has remained such a vital figure in American pop culture. Check your cynicism at the door and allow yourself to be open to the most heart-warming cinematic experience you could hope for, Won't You Be My Neighbour is one of the essential documentaries of the festival.


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