Sunday, June 23, 2013

Decline & fall of the music industry, as seen in Alex Winter's Napster doc DOWNLOADED

OK: so it's not as glossy or superbly cast as The Social Network. Yet DOWNLOADED -- the new documen-tary about the rise and fall of Napster, written, directed and produced by Alex Winter (that's right: the star of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure) -- is a much more interesting and important tale than that of the Facebook story. The two movies share a character, too: Sean Parker, who partnered in the creation of Napster prior to his involvement in Facebook. While Mr. Parker proves a whirl-a-gig of verbiage and energy (he rarely shuts up), the quieter character, Shawn Fanning (who created Napster) is the one you'll find it hard to take your eyes off.

TrustMovies is not sure what possessed Mr. Winter (shown at left) to embark on this doc (maybe his love of music and/or hatred of the original pirates of the industry, those very large music companies and their masters). Whatever -- he has put together a consistently enthralling look at Napster and its most important workers, how and why the idea (and later the company itself) came about, how it grew and grew until it boasted 50 million users and then... Well, if its amazing two-year history (yes: It lasted only from June 1999 through July 2001) somehow passed you by, it is all here in this 107-minute movie. And however you may feel about the company and its maybe-not-all-that-well-thought-out "purpose" going into the film, I can almost guarantee you'll feel at least a little differently coming out.

The Napster boys we meet (that's Shawn Fanning, above) are, without exception, smart, fun, excited by what they're doing and relatively charming (as geeks of this ilk go). And though I must say that it struck me almost from the first minute I heard about Napster and what it was doing, it appears that the thought of "copyright infringement" did not occur to these guys, at least for awhile, as their company was growing by leaps and bounds. (It certainly occurred to them later on, for, as Sean Parker, shown below, tells us toward the end of the film, the term "pirating music" was forbidden verbiage around headquarters.) In any case, it seems clear now that the thrill and excitement of simply being able to do what they did -- bringing all sorts of music, free, to millions -- overran any worries about morality or fears of prosecution.

All this happened at the turn of this Millennium, as technology of every sort seemed to be burgeoning, with not even the sky the limit. When the behemoth (some might call them dinosaurs) record companies -- slow, stupid and hugely uncooperative with each other ("You couldn't get those guys to agree that today was Wednesday!" notes one speaker) -- finally understood what was happening, without the necessary cooperation that might have given birth to a new and hugely successful means of bringing music to the masses, all the big boys wanted to do was to kill the upstart.

How they did it is shown in all its miserable glory, with the music industry looking shoddy and shameful, even as many of our elected politicians appear to be -- it is possible? -- actually intelligent. Meanwhile, records stores (above) disappeared, even as record moguls continued to live rather well. And the protesting of performers like Dr. Dre and Metallica only added to the bizarre mix of motives and actions. (Both the doc and those metal boys received a million bucks from Napster, even as the company was going under).

It's all here, and lots more, and through it all, the one presence that grounds the movie is that of Mr. Fanning, below, whose story, more than anyone else's, this is. He goes and grows from a gifted, geeky kid to a more mature and seasoned fellow, who also seems awfully sad. But why not? Look what he accomplished and lost, and what an opportunity there was for something amazing for performers and music lovers worldwide. Ah, well. Next time.

Downloaded opened this past Friday at Manhattan’s Village East Cinema and will hit Los Angeles' Sundance Sunset Cinemas on Friday, June 28. Additional theatrical bookings are also scheduled for cities around the country through mid-August, in partnership with specialty distributor Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama. On July 1, the film will debut on all leading On-Demand platforms, in partnership with digital entertainment curator FilmBuff.

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