In difficult times, it’s common practice for filmmakers to reflect the difficulties of the times with documentaries of historical events to teach the current generation about how bad it can get. But there are also films that emerge depicting great lessons on the positive end of the spectrum. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is one of those films.
Released on June 8, 2018, the documentary film gives a detailed profile of Fred Rogers, star of popular PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Footage includes interviews with those who knew him best, along with Rogers himself shown during episodes, in outtakes and past television interviews filmed during his life.
Many of the biggest questions about Rogers were answered during the film, including whether he actually had tattoos all over his arms (he didn’t), whether he was actually mean when the camera wasn’t rolling (absolutely not) and even whether his show actually did harm to an entire generation by telling them all they were special, which his critics vehemently said gave his viewers an attitude of entitlement (the film’s message speaks to the contrary).
But perhaps his greatest gift was using television for the good of educating children about the complexities of life.
One such message was depicted in an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood where he discovered a local steelpan builder in Pittsburgh was making the instruments by pounding on steel with a hammer. He found the technique matched the theme of an upcoming series of episodes he was planning called, “Mad Feelings” (episode #1694).
In the episode, Mr. McFeely, the friendly mailman who regularly visited Rogers on the show, brought a steelpan with him to show Rogers. He described what it was and where it came from, instantly captivating Rogers. McFeely even played it a bit to showcase the sound. Rogers complemented it and spoke honestly, saying it had a beautiful sound and making sure to call it by it’s given name, the steelpan, rather than what many in the U.S. have been calling it, the steel drum.
The episode then went on to show local Pittsburgh, Pa. pan builder Phil Solomon at work making pans in his workshop, explaining the process for the viewers.
Venting Through Music
The point of the episode was to explain to kids how to get rid of anger in a healthy way. Other episodes in the series featured similar ideas, including one on the performance group, Stomp, which used everyday items like brooms and buckets as percussion instruments. Given the timing of the documentary and how steelpan was used in an episode, it’s important to remember how to deal with anger in a healthy way, which includes channeling it to make and play musical instruments like the steelpan.
The other thing the episode accomplished was showcasing pan in the correct light, explaining where it came from, its history, how it’s made, what it sounds like in a full band setting and it’s proper name.
When information is given this clearly and honestly, it makes one long for the days when Rogers was a mainstay on television. This is especially true today with the divisions being seen in the media and across the country due to the complex political climate currently on-hand. Hopefully, reminders like this will continue when we most need them and have an impact for the better in the days, months and years ahead.
Episodes of Mr. Rogers, including “Mad Feelings,” can be seen on Amazon Prime.