Known most readily as the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the man behind the television show is best characterized by one of his sons, who refers to him as “the second Christ.”
Undeniably a bold statement, the documentary wherein he makes it — “Won’t You By My Neighbor?” — seems to agree with this perspective. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” paints a glowing portrait of the late and great PBS icon. Its extensive behind-the-scenes footage ultimately succeeds in creating a sentimental yet touching biography of a television legend.
The documentary begins the exact way that the show does, with Fred Rogers performing his familiar routine that heralds the beginning of every episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He enters his stage home and dons his iconic cardigan, all while singing the song from which the documentary draws its name. “Won’t You By My Neighbor?” traces the trajectory of Rogers’ career through uses of archival footage, interviews and surprising — yet well-executed — moments of animation.
Just as the show itself struck a balance between the real and the imaginary, these animated sequences are fascinating in the way by which they fuse these two realms. These moments jarringly interrupt the comparatively standard format of the documentary, but to their credit, they formally mirror the split structure of the show itself.
Voice-over audio by Rogers himself plays while an animated version of Daniel Striped Tiger, one of the more popular puppets from the show, acts out Rogers’ personal stories and anecdotes. These insights into Rogers’ childhood — told through dazzling animation — are visually brilliant. But even more importantly, they simultaneously show another side of the man who, for many, only existed within the frame of a television set.
It’s during one of these animated confessionals that Rogers reveals that most of his childhood was spent in bed because of illness and that he often he had to rely on his imagination in order to entertain himself. Rogers cited this as one of the reasons why he was always so good at relating to children.
During his interactions with children, both on and off his show, we see Rogers truly shine. Whether he was sharing an improvised song with a quadriplegic child during one of his episodes or kindly listening to a child’s fears through the puppet of Daniel, Rogers’ skill with children is hard to question. However, the documentary made a point of emphasizing that Rogers’ charm wasn’t limited solely to his interactions with children.
In interviews, everyone who had ever met Rogers only had positive things to say, but Rogers arguably made his most important impression during a 1969 U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications hearing, during which he argued to preserve the public funding that made his show possible. The documentary satisfyingly builds suspense toward the now-famous footage of Rogers offering public testimony.
As expected, Rogers’ speech was awe-inspiring.
Rogers’ opposition, then-senator John O. Pastore, had sought to cut funding to PBS. Rogers was one of the last speakers to offer testimony. Through Rogers’ carefully considered words about why his show was important, the scene is one of the film’s most impactful, with Pastore’s gradual softening striking an emotional chord. Here, the editing deserves a mention, with Rogers’ well-argued speech carrying substantially more weight when played after his remarkable exchanges with children.
In addition to Rogers’ skill at public speaking, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is flush with moments that heap more and more unbelievability into Rogers. Details such as the fact that he weighed the same weight (143 pounds) for decades, or the casual mention that he penned over 200 original songs only embellish the mythicality that surrounds Rogers
If any critique can be leveled at “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” it might simply be that Rogers comes across as too good a human being, almost unbelievably so. Even then, through skillful editing and touching behind-the-scenes footage, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shines a brilliant light on the man in the cardigan.
Sarah Alford covers film. Contact her at [email protected].