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When the average adult hears the name Fred Rogers, they think of a peaceful man in a knit sweater, and perhaps even the jaunty piano-driven song that introduced his beloved children's show. Within pop culture, there are few more straight-and-narrow figures, and it's hard to imagine him doing anything even remotely "radical." That being said, I recently learned that he actually did just that while trying to bond with his teenage son, grooving to the tunes of free-spirited artists Frank Zappa and Bob Marley. Morgan Neville, director of the new documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor, recently told me:
His son, Jim, when he became a teenager, Fred was trying to stay in touch with his son, and he'd say, 'What are you listening to?' So Jim would give his dad mixtapes, and so he gave his dad a bunch of Frank Zappa. And his dad, who was a composer, thought it was very interesting, because Zappa's music was really out there. But Jim said, 'The music I gave my dad that he responded to the most was Bob Marley.' He loved Bob Marley. And if you think about it, the message of love, it's very on message for Fred Rogers.
I had the wonderful pleasure of sitting down with Morgan Neville last week during the Los Angles press day for Won't You Be My Neighbor -- and it was at the very end of my interview that I heard this funny story. Knowing I only had one question left, I asked the filmmaker about the great stories that he simply couldn't squeeze into the final cut of his documentary, and he offered the surprising way the always-working Fred Rogers connected with his son, Jim, at a young age.
For those not fully registering the contrasts here, for example, Fred Rogers was a deeply religious man with very conservative values, while Frank Zappa was a vocal iconoclast during the height of his popularity. All the same, Rogers was able to appreciate Zappa's work being a musician and a composer himself -- and Zappa certainly was incredibly experimental and groundbreaking throughout his career.
As for Bob Marley, one can definitely see Morgan Neville's perspective on the matter, and the comparisons between the message of the music and Fred Rogers' philosophy. Let's not forget that this was the artist that brought us songs like "One Love, "Positive Vibration, and "Satisfy My Soul." Where they surely did differ was on the matter of cannabis legislation, though Neville explained that Jim Rogers had a workaround in that situation:
He said, 'Of course, I didn't give him the ganja songs.'
This isn't one of the stories that is shared in Won't You Be My Neighbor, but there are probably hundreds more in the wonderful doc, and there's a good chance you'll cry while listening to a lot of them. The movie has been gaining buzz ever since its debut earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and soon you'll hopefully be able to see it for yourself. The doc is getting a limited release this weekend in major markets -- and if that includes you, I highly recommend purchasing a ticket.