Depending on your age, the recent passing of Geoffrey Hayes, the British presenter of children’s TV show Rainbow, may well have prompted thoughts about what he meant to you growing up. In America, the colossus of children’s television was undoubtedly Fred Rogers, the subject of Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Rogers was the wholesome creator and presenter of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a show on PBS that began in 1968 and lasted a staggering 33 years.
Neville is the Oscar-winning documentary director of 20 Feet To Stardom (and currently has the Orson Welles doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead heading to Netflix). With his Rogers film, he doesn’t do anything radical. He simply tells Rogers’ life story with interviews and archive footage, and does it with decorum and good taste. It evidently chimed with viewers in America, doubtless drunk on nostalgia, where it’s made $22 million, becoming the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all-time.
Speaking to family members, Neville also digs into what made Rogers such an enduring force on US television. His love for children and his ability to communicate with them is admirably expressed (and his shows never shied away from difficult topics like death, divorce or even, towards the end of his time on TV, explaining the horrors of 9/11 to youngsters).
Neville also shows the impact his subject made on popular culture, with numerous parodies of Rogers’ intro as he walks into the living room set singing his ‘neighbour’ song while removing his coat and putting on his comfy cardigan (the Eddie Murphy skit on Saturday Night Live when he arrives into his cruddy apartment with a bag of groceries he’s stolen is particularly amusing).
If this gentle mockery might sound a little cruel, Neville doesn’t linger on it for long. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an entirely irony-free appreciation of this iconic figure from the American cultural landscape. At a time where wholesome values are in short supply, it’s little wonder this film has hit a nerve in America. Even if you’ve never heard the name ‘Fred Rogers’, this will leave you feeling good about life.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens on 9 November. For more details, click here.
1. Still from Won’t You Be My Neighbor?