The word “documentary” has been redefined over the past ten years or so, as the market and public interpretation of the art form has transformed considerably from it’s initial write-off as impenetrable intellectually-savvy burden. As digital distribution and filmmaking made documentaries more affordable to make and more time-effective to edit and produce, the paradigm shifted as more entertaining, personal and relatable documentaries started coming out by the dozen. And it is during this time that documentaries could also be made at the time of social relevance rather than a complete afterthought to a story that had happened years before. It’s within this climate that Downloaded hits the hardest, reminding that for us to consume media and go about our daily lives as they are today, we had lived through a digital revolution that was largely inspired by the rise and fall of Napster.
Downloaded plays its hand well as a documentary, never picking sides in a clearly still-controversial subject and allowing the story to tell itself from opinions on both sides of the fence. And rather than try to make excuses and hail Napster as a martyr of the digital revolution, Downloaded prefers to observe in a moral grey area, letting the legal battles, social outcry and experiences of those for and against Napster to paint the picture for us. On that end, director Alex Winter is a master of his craft, arching the real life drama and confusion surrounding Napster into a story that is not only easy to follow, but efficiently unbiased as to not condemn or appraise the company. Of course, the documentary claims that Napster was a significant part of popular culture, and there’s no denying that, and also claims that it’s eventual purpose outshone the initial purpose of the service, but Downloaded is strictly business, which keeps the film from becoming exploitative or preachy.
One of the most fascinating elements of Downloaded is that even though the subject is well over a decade old, the consequential technology and programs that followed the peer-to-peer juggernaut makes this film as relevant as ever. If anything, there’s an element of sympathy that the audience derive from Shawn Fanning and, although less-so, Sean Parker as their ideas for digital distribution and content delivery systems are quickly becoming the norm in today’s society. Winter also wisely covers choice topics to show the good that Napster achieved, aside from bringing together a collective internet community, which includes giving exposure to otherwise limited independent musical artists and breathing new life into previously lost music catalogues. Even when the company comes under fire, Winter prevents the documentary from becoming too derisive, as the opponents of Napster appear much more invested in the company’s total destruction rather than appropriate legal recourse. But Winter also never lets Napster stay too long in the sun, also exhibiting the notions of its flawed business model and public persona that contributed to the companies downfall.
Downloaded appears much closer to the concept of a chronicling rather than a retrospective, hitting each time period logically and thoroughly. The talking heads of the piece speak very articulately and with passion, which makes the more controversial aspects of the subject an especially electric showcase in and of itself. Winter decides to not allow his own opinions to bleed into the film, never truly placing himself on-screen rather than an early appearance based in contextualization. Winter knows that the story is not that of fact vs. fiction, then vs. now or us vs. them, but instead a story of time vs. tradition. As innovation, technology and communication grew amongst a new generation, the seeds of Napster bore the fruit of unlimited free music, and curiously enough, so many interviews from around the time with the consumers behind Napster hadn’t known they had been committing a crime in the first place. Ambiguity is Downloaded’s strongest weapon, which frees the documentary from a social message and instead categorizes the film as entertainment as well as non-fiction.
Downloaded is a brilliant and mesmerizing descent into the collapse of analog consumption and the cannibalistic nature of technological advance, one of which eventually consumed Napster as well. Much like Napster, nobody really saw Downloaded coming, but the documentary throws you alongside the real life perplexities in the matter so well that you wonder why this story has not been told sooner. As the architect of the film, Winter’s directorial strength as a documentarian lies in objectivity, instead investing his cinematic voice into a philosophically-balanced juxtaposition between the needs of the media and the needs of the people. Most importantly, Downloaded serves as a social reawakening, relevant to anyone who has watched the growth of social networks, the RIAA’s crusade against piracy, the backlash against SOPA and the complete 180 degree turn of the digital marketplace. And if you’re reading this on your desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet, that ‘anyone’ more than likely includes you.[rating=5]
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he recieved an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.