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'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' review: Documentary shows that we need Fred Rogers more than ever

Fred Rogers, left, and Francois Clemmons in "Won't

Fred Rogers, left, and Francois Clemmons in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Photo Credit: John Beale

PLOT A documentary on children’s television icon Fred Rogers.

RATED PG-13 (some adult themes)

LENGTH 1:34

BOTTOM LINE A poignant tribute to the mild-mannered father figure who served as moral compass to generations.

In Morgan Neville’s documentary on Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the late children’s show host explains how and why he got into television. “I saw people throwing pies in each others’ faces,” he says. “And I thought: This could be a wonderful tool. Why is it being used this way?”

Pies! Imagine if Rogers could see what’s being thrown around on television today, literally and metaphorically. It almost makes you glad he’s not around, but the whole point of Neville’s documentary is exactly the opposite: Now more than ever, we could use a Fred Rogers.

It’s easy to lapse into lamentations for a bygone past while watching this film about a man who made it his mission to teach children kindness, tolerance, love for others and love of oneself. You’d be hard pressed to find another theme song as utterly sincere as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which Rogers sang roughly 900 times at the start of each half-hour episode of his PBS show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (which ran from 1968 to 2001). Using hand puppets, human actors and the simplest of sets — a living room interior, a mock-up castle, a stage-prop tree — Rogers created little teleplays that addressed the major themes of childhood: shyness, meanness, sadness, the chaos of the grown-up world. In one poignant clip, co-star Betty Aberlin tries to explain the assassination of Robert Kennedy to Rogers’ fuzzy alter-ego, Daniel Striped Tiger.

Through interviews with family members and cast members, along with rare behind-the-scenes footage and lesser-seen clips, Neville (the Oscar-winning director behind the rock doc “20 Feet from Stardom”) fills this film with little details and insights that add up to a moving portrait of Rogers. Some of the most revealing testimony comes from Francois Clemmons, the actor who played Officer Clemmons and recalls the episode where he and Rogers put their feet together in a kiddie pool — a semi-coded response to the segregationist sentiment still thriving at the time. Clemmons is also gay, but both men understood that the actor could not then come out publicly. It’s a rare example of Rogers being unable to mesh his make-believe world with the real one.

At a time when the entire world seems to be angry, hateful and generally in a bad mood, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” sometimes feels like an admonishment as much as a tribute. When the film ends, it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve momentary forgotten everything Rogers taught us.

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